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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
String Quartets: Volume 6
String Quartet No. 4 (1917)
String Quartet No. 9 (1945)
String Quartet No. 11 (1948)
Latin American Quartet
Recorded Mexico City, 2000
DORIAN DOR 93229 [79.23]

This is the sixth and final volume in Dorian’s impressive traversal of the complete Villa-Lobos quartets (all seventeen of them). The astute mixing of compositional periods is fruitfully maintained – the Fourth dates from 1917, the Eleventh from 1948 – and there is as ever a huge amount of harmonic interest, colour and rhythmic diversity to tempt the ear. On those few occasions that I find the Latin American quartet lacking it’s mainly a matter of tempo relation because otherwise they are commendable guides to the corpus of work. In the opening Allegro con moto of the Fourth I do find them too slow – though there is plenty of relaxed dialogue between the four voices, an elegant conversational counterpoint and a fine, increasingly impassioned coda, strong willed and dynamic. The Andantino, subtitled tranquillo, is by contrast heat hazy, with a fine exchange between viola and cello. Written in his favoured ABA structures the piu mosso brings lissom and freewheeling fun complete with bird cries and exotic figures in a predominately brown hued landscape evoked by Villa-Lobos’s imaginative hand. There are Debussy hints here as well in the frequently gorgeous impressionism. For the scherzo he draws on a favourite device – children’s song in a movement lightly and brightly scored and in the finale there’s more impressively weighty viola sonority and plenty of fugato development.

There’s a tough triplet start to the Ninth. It’s quite sinewy and has a degree of atonality embedded in it; it yields later to moments of lyricism but the writing remains rather brittle and brisk. As one who thrives on contrast and juxtaposition, it’s not at all surprising that he unfolds now an initially intensely slow Andante Vagaroso. This is harmonically complex, introspective, reflective, arching – with a faster central section – and a kind of Bartókian tension. There are also little folk fiddle insinuations. The Scherzo – actually a poco moderato with the explicit instruction com bravura – is again tough. It’s not as light, dextrous and aerated as most of the quartet scherzi can be and usually are. But the finale is certainly up to scratch – this is one of Villa-Lobos’s rhythmically driving movements, dominated for large tracts by the first violin. There is, however, an excellently frenetic coda, complete with dramatic, theatrical end flourish.

The opening of the Eleventh is notable for the juxtaposition of fragmentary units. There is in addition a strong neo-classical spirit in the triumphalist unison writing creating its own tension as well as an enhanced sense of colour and drama. Some droning folk fiddles make their unmistakeable presence felt in the second movement that breaks into a peasant dance of real - if brief – vitality and Villa-Lobos reaches for his powerful imitative writing in the Adagio. This is a curiously withdrawn movement, melancholy and compelling. The finale is bright, infectious but there’s also behind this a gimlet eye at work; the direction is unerring and in the B section there’s some quietly uncompromising writing. A master of contrast and colour.

I’ve reviewed all six in this series with real pleasure and the enjoyment has continued here. The sensitivity and understanding of the Latin American Quartet are palpable; quibbles regarding under-the-tempo movements are minor; their tonal profile is attractive and they are sane and good guides.

Jonathan Woolf

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


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