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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
String Quartets: Volume 4
String Quartet No. 2 (1915)
String Quartet No. 12 (1950)
String Quartet No. 16 (1955)
Latin American Quartet
Recorded Mexico City, 1988
DORIAN DOR 93179 [64.16]


The standards set by this series are continued in the fourth volume of six. Villa-Lobos may lack Shostakovich’s greatness of utterance but his body of seventeen quartets is one of the most significant of the century. As before this disc ranges over the years, and shows his ingenious approach to rhythm, colour, harmony and tonality, one that is consistently inventive and attractive. There is, in the light of his later works in the medium, a very beguiling lyricism in the opening of the Second Quartet of 1915 and Villa-Lobos makes sure that the succeeding Scherzo is well laden with colour, vibrancy and harmonic novelties. The slow movement is rich and warm and rises to peaks of unison eloquence, spiced with little moments of yearning intensification. As with so many of these Quartets the finale is propulsive and energetic, the slow sections drawing reminiscently on the music of the central two movements. There’s plenty of ricochet bowing and a gleeful Spanishry about much of it – not necessarily convincingly integrated but enjoyable and enticing.

The much later Twelfth (1950) opens in brisk style but there’s no clotting in the writing – the writing is clearer, especially in comparison with his earlier self’s impressionistic affiliations. What there is, in profusion, is a sense of songful reverie and repose. The slow movement is marked Andante malinconico and there is a long-breathed and affecting depth to it as well as a particularly diverting central section. This is in effect a Fughetta-as-song episode redolent of Haydn - not for nothing did Villa-Lobos revere Haydn’s quartets. Fluttering and fluting fiddles grace the Allegretto as does a sweeping little fugal section and a strong rhythmic drive – one of his most graceful scherzi. Once again the finale is saturated in song and the élan of his writing is laced with bustle and exultation. It’s true that Villa-Lobos can sometimes seem sectional – that block writing can edge toward the blatant – but his life-force illuminates these works from within and in a finale such as this the sheer affection of the writing is wonderful elating.

Finally, the Sixteenth. There’s a deal of virtuoso writing for the first violin in the opening movement and the mood ranges from the initial withdrawn feeling to a more succulent and effervescent one – but there’s plenty of clarity. The Andante is limpid with a strongly etched cello line (Villa-Lobos’s own instrument) that ascends the scale to a moment of Tristanesque affirmation and release. It has about it an unusual nobility and stoicism and the plentiful counterpoint adds great weight to the musical argument. Impressive. The Scherzo is correspondingly light-hearted with chattering dialogue and spiccato-laced bowing whilst the finale has lovely ornamental sounding "leaps." It could do with being played a notch or two faster than the Latin American Quartet take it.

Once again this is a thoroughly convincing traversal in a natural acoustic with fine, helpful notes. The more I listen to these quartets the more I’m convinced that everyone should have at least three of them in their collection.

Jonathan Woolf

Other reviews
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6


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