Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Symphony No. 1 The Unexpected (1916) 26.06
Symphony No. 11 (1955) 26.04
rec 15-19 Sept 1997 Stuttgart SWR RADIO SO, Stuttgart / Carl St Clair
CPO 999 568-2 [52.15]
 Amazon UK 


You naturally associate Villa-Lobos with the sequence of Choros and Bachianas Brasileiras and with the Amazonian jungle. Well I do anyway. Symphonies? Hardly! Although No. 4 was always there, in splendid isolation, in the colossal Pathé-Marconi Villa-Lobos edition (long available on both LP and CD). I reviewed the Marco Polo recording of No. 6 back in 1998.

In fact there are twelve symphonies spanning the whole of the composer's creative life. They are not evenly distributed across the years. The first five were written between 1916-1920. The sequence resumes with No. 6 in 1944 and then continues until the late 1950s and his death in 1959.

The First is a romantic torch of a piece. Strings screech and pulse in the first movement in echo of Taras Bulba and Hanson's heroic Nordic Symphony. There is a touch of Hollywood there as well. Those flashing birdsong flutes are pure Hanson! Alongside such technicolour influences you can also detect the sweep of Ravel's Daphnis and Debussy's La Mer. Romance is also the cornerstone of the second movement with its cello-invocation, pizzicato, growling bass and big tune itself an apparent refraction of Sibelius symphony No. 1. After a third movement (rapidly rhythmic, slightly jazzy, jungle-souled, nervous and richly harp-swirled) we return to the great romantic theme from the first movement ultimately wiped out by a massive smoothly affirmative dying away.

The penultimate symphony was premiered by the Boston SO and the composer on 2 March 1956. It powers forward with the massy nuclear plant energy of an Igor Markevich score. The Largo is slightly apocalyptic - a floating Ravelian world. Villa-Lobos seems never to have been short of quick-footed fantastic invention and it shows time after time in a chivvying and stabbing quick march. The bell carillons of the finale are slammed downwards by the brass section. The movement has the fire-hose energy of Alwyn 4. The score vibrates richly with the vibraphone, xylophone, matraca (clatter), celesta, two harps and piano. Great bass shudders run and slither primevally through the score. In fact the music sounds very much like Malcolm Arnold in the plaintive flute voice at 2.40 (IV). All ends in a climactic brassy sunburst.

Well if this carries on we can expect complete symphonic cycles of Alan Hovhaness, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Arthur Butterworth, Walter Stanley Gaze Cooper, Peter Tahourdin, Peter Racine Fricker (now when is someone going to record his choral masterpiece The Vision of Judgement?), Alan Bush, Maximilian Steinberg, Lev Knipper, Lokshin (his third, a setting of Kipling poems, is a very strong work) and Yuri Shaporin (now please add your own names).

So, to return to Villa-Lobos, here is your chance to be in at the beginning. This series will clearly be worth collecting and will redeem considerable satisfaction musically speaking. Two emotionally juicy symphonies of an epic nature despite their comparative brevity.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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