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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
String Quartets: Volume 5
String Quartet No. 5 (1931)
String Quartet No. 10 (1946)
String Quartet No. 13 (1951)
Latin American Quartet
Recorded Mexico City, 2000
DORIAN DOR 93211 [62.06]

Five down, one to go. The Seventeen Quartets of Villa-Lobos – he didn’t live to complete the Eighteenth – are a formidable corpus of work. And they’re exciting too, rhythmically dynamic, instrumentally colourful, the later ones tinged with moments of creative atonality. In six volumes we have here a same-as-before mixture of early-ish and late, except Villa-Lobos was not really a same-as-before kind of composer. I love the opening Andantino of the Fifth Quartet so much I could get in there and eat it. Grace, humour, a multipartite structure, deliciously placed pizzicati and a songful delicacy based on a children’s song – it has it all. Those familiar displaced accents make their telling presence felt as ever with him. Resist this and, frankly, you have a hard heart indeed. In the fast second movement he makes great use of shuddering glissandi and this openly polyrhythmic movement sways in the breeze of his imagination with infectious mastery. The finale is a moto perpetuo, again based on a song and once again it sways and shimmers and then drives with brilliant abandon with the first violinist earning his keep with some virtuosic passages.

Dating from just after the end of the Second War the Tenth, in the regulation four movements, opens in strongly imitative style with a splintering coda that telescopes the material into compressed form. The Adagio is quite thickly scored and in fact rather more concentrated than one otherwise finds in Villa-Lobos’s Quartet Adagios or Andantes. There’s plenty of bustle though in the Scherzo, animated by lashings of ostinati and in the finale there’s free use of dissonance as a creative and colouristic, no less than a musical, device – swinging rhythm, fugato, pizzicato underpinning, and once more another example of his splendidly theatrical and supercharged codas. The final work in the disc, the Thirteenth shows how well he had absorbed elements of atonality in his later music. The writing is predominantly intervallic and much is unison playing with imitative counterpoint. The writing manages to be flexible and also relaxed despite these rigorous sounding procedures. Then we have a sparky, frisky scherzo – complete with little eruptive sforzati – all deliciously compact. The heart of the work is the long Adagio and this is in his best long-breathed tradition, sustained and suffused in yearning and nostalgia. Simplicity of utterance is accompanied by apposite technical means, as in the best music. The first fiddle has an intensely expressive part over ostinato accompaniment and throughout there’s a sense of the most affectionate depth. To end there is a tumultuous Allegro – full of slowing down and rhythmic high jinks.

Five volumes reviewed so far and five recommendations. The Latin American Quartet maintains a high standard throughout; elsewhere their tempi may be fractionally under the mark but not here. They are acute and sensitive guides to this literature and they play with imagination and affection.

Jonathan Woolf

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


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