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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887 - 1959)
Symphony No. 3 A Guerra (1919)
Symphony No. 9 (1952)
Overture de l’Homme Tel (1952)
SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester, Stuttgart/Carl St. Clair.
recorded at Stadthalle Sindelfingen, March 19-20, 1998 (No.3) and July 8-10, 1999 and April 17-18, 2000 (No. 9). DDD
CPO 999 712-2 [61.25]


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Villa Lobos has not generally been known as a symphonist. These two works, part of a complete cycle currently being recorded by these forces, go some way to explaining why. Villa-Lobos wrote a total of 12 symphonies, throughout his composing life. These two works come from his early and late periods.

The Third was composed in 1919 to a commission by the Brazilian Government to celebrate the Armistice. It was performed that year, initially only the first two movements, and then later complete. It formed, with symphonies 4 and 5, a war symphonic triptych based loosely on texts by Brazilian poet, Escragnole Dorla. The poem does not appear in the score, but was reproduced in full in the original programme notes. There are no specific points of contact between poem and score, as the poem is about war in very general terms, and the inspiration is more to do with general war-like feelings than specific events.

This is probably all to the good as far as Villa-Lobos was concerned. Although he was more interested in shorter descriptive pieces he had a strict formalist streak, which was satisfied by the writing of symphonies, string quartets (17) and a number of other classically-structured works.

The Third Symphony is scored for two piccolos, english horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, xylophone, matraca, bass drum, celesta, harp, fanfare brass section, strings and mixed chorus "ad libitum." Be warned however – the choir required by the composer is missing!

Given the size of the orchestra and the subject of the inspiration for the work one might be forgiven for thinking that we were in for an assault on the eardrums. Although there is plenty of activity, I was surprised how relatively restrained it is. The work is very skilfully orchestrated as you might expect but the tunefulness is somewhat limited – however this is quite common in modernish symphonies – we can’t all be Tchaikovskys.

The Ninth Symphony is scored for piccolo, english horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, coconut hulls, bass drum, xylophone, celesta, vibraphone, harp and strings. It is very similar in sound to the earlier work, but the ternary nature of the work is noticeable.

There is a short declamatory first movement, followed by a both contemplative and dramatic adagio in ternary structure. A scherzo, again in tertiary form, follows with the short rhythmic nature of the themes add to the level of activity. The finale is in rondo form (ABCA plus coda), and displays a fugato passage as the second subject, started off by cellos, double basses and bassoon. This makes for an unusual format but quite interesting listening. The symphony is dedicated to the composer’s second wife, Mindinha.

The Overture sounds very French, and is quite a contrast with the remainder of the disc; not a trace of Brazilian atmosphere.

Performances appear to be first class and the recording quality is of very good broadcast quality, clear and bright. Anyone investing in this disc is likely to be very pleased with their purchase.

John Phillips

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