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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Bachianas Brasileiras - complete
CD1 [73:10]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for an orchestra of cellos (1930) [19:50]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 for chamber orchestra (1930) [22:16]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 3 for piano and orchestra (1938) [31:04]
CD2 [40:42]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 for orchestra (1930, 1941) [20:27]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for voice and eight cellos (1938, 1945) [10:59]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon (1938) [9:07]
CD3 [62:22]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7 for orchestra (1942) [27:26]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 8 for orchestra  (1944) [24:48]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 for string orchestra (1944) [10:08]
Rosana Lamosa (sop); Jose Feghali (piano); Anthony La Marchina (cello); Eric Gratton (flute); Cynthia Estill (bassoon) 
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn; Andrew Mogrelia
rec. 14 May 2005, 7, 21, 23 Mar 2004. Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. DDD 
NAXOS 8.557460-462 [3 CDs: 73:10 + 40:42 + 62:22]



“Everybody” knows Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 with that beautiful soprano aria and an accompaniment by eight cellos. But what about the rest? It reminds me of the musical student who at his exam was asked “How many symphonies did Beethoven write?” “Three!” was the prompt answer. “Interesting”, said the professor, “Can you elaborate?” “Of course”, the student said: “The Eroica, The Pastoral and the Ninth.” “No. 5” in the case of Villa-Lobos also indicates that he wrote more than one work of his kind, actually nine. Just as with Beethoven, so No. 5 is in the middle of the canon. Symphonies they are not, even though five of them are in four movements; there the similarities end. Not directly modelled on Bach they are deeply influenced by certain aspects of his music, albeit with a Brazilian twist. There are fugues in four of them, toccatas in four, arias in five and preludes in most. Likewise he makes use of sundry dances. But they are not pastiches, harmonically he is a child of his own time. Between them the nine works are very different, ranging from chamber music (No. 6) to full size orchestra. In between we find chamber orchestra, string orchestra, piano and orchestra and the original No. 1 for “an orchestra of cellos”, while No. 5 also stands out by being the only one with vocal contribution. It should also be remembered that No. 9 for string orchestra started life as music for unaccompanied chorus. Besides the baroque references, the Bachianas brasileiras (“Bach à la Brazil”) are rhythmically fascinating. They are also imaginatively and colourfully scored, even though in places the orchestration can feel somewhat overloaded. I must compliment the recording staff for managing to produce such translucent orchestral textures with all the details of the score audible without undue highlighting and without loss of the massive punch the composer was quite capable of delivering.

Why this music isn’t more frequently performed is not easy to say. Truth to tell some of the pieces need to be heard more than once before they yield returns. Once they have “opened up” the unprejudiced listener will be richly rewarded. On the other hand there are works that are immediately catchy, like No.1, with its rhythmically alive, contrapuntal first movement, the beautiful, inward love song as its second and the swinging third movement fugue. No. 2 is a darker composition but the second movement has an evocative saxophone solo. There are some hilarious trombone glissandi in the third and the celebrated toccata, depicting the little train with its steam engine running through North-Eastern Brazil, is not only a vivid  illustration of modern technique but also allows us to glimpse the landscape flashing past.

There are other ear-openers for the newcomer. Film music lovers may well revel in the Fantasia of No. 3 with some virtuoso piano writing; the string dominated Prelúdio of No. 4 is ravishingly beautiful; No. 6, the shortest of them all, witty and elegant with its odd David-and-Goliath duo for flute and bassoon; No. 7 has a Toccata that oozes with ideas and a final Fuga, subtitled “Conversation” which starts as a low-voiced, disciplined discussion but grows more and more exciting, only to finish in a joint, jubilant statement, underlined by triumphant timpani rolls; No. 8 has a soaring cello melody that goes straight to the heart in the Aria and a thrillingly rhythmic Toccata and the Fuga of No. 9 is probably the most Bachian movement in the whole cycle.

The execution and recording is a great victory for all involved. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra have emerged as a leading band the last few years through a series of excellent Naxos recordings. Their conductor, for many years, Kenneth Schermerhorn, sadly passed away some months ago. He never put a foot wrong in this sometimes intricate music. Andrew Mogrelia, recorded No. 1 after Schermerhorn’s death. The excellent instrumentalists and the production team must also take a bow. There is only one fly in the ointment. Observant readers may have noticed that I omitted No. 5 (the one everybody knows) from my survey, and that has nothing to do with the cello department of the orchestra, who play with ideal silken tone. My difficulty is with the soloist Rosana Lamosa. She has basically a fine voice but it is marred by a heavy vibrato that definitely conflicts with the music’s lyrical qualities. I don’t for a second question Ms Lamosa’s musicality, but this piece requires a simpler, softer, cleaner delivery. The ideal for me has for many years been Victoria de los Angeles, who recorded it for EMI in the 1950s with the composer conducting. There are numerous other versions around that are much closer to the mark. Different listeners react differently to voices and others may feel more attuned to Ms Lamosa. I do admit that the wordless part of the Aria, sung pianissimo, is beautifully done. Since most collectors already have at least one favourite recording of No. 5, this remark shouldn’t deter anyone from acquiring the set, which as a whole, is a wonderful bargain, irrespective of price range. I have sampled a few other recordings at random and found none that Schermerhorn isn’t at least on a par with and in most cases far superior to. Richard Whitehouse’s essay in the booklet is a further asset, although my copy had a couple of blank pages, so I had to copy the text from Naxos’s homepage.

All in all then, another feather in the Naxos hat, which is getting well-filled by now. A worthy memento of the art of Kenneth Schermerhorn and a treasure trove of wonderful and too little known music.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Patrick Waller





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