maestro has written about 2,000 works" said a Rio critic
of Heitor Villa-Lobos. "I would throw 1,950 of them
away". Yet as Time magazine said in 1948 “the remaining
50 are still enough to make Villa-Lobos South America's greatest
living composer” 1.
nine part cycle of Bachianas Brasileiras are overtly
Villa-Lobos’s tribute, or response, to the music of J.S.
Bach. Obviously the listener will pick out fugues and counterpoint
but musicologists debate the extent to which the BBs actually
reflect Bach's writing. Alongside many European traditions
there is clearly also the influence of the popular music
of multicultural Brazil; its nightclubs, bars and cinemas
where the young composer worked as a cellist1,2.
Villa Lobos seems to answer this when he said "You don't
need to understand music. You need to feel it"1 so
I listened to the music on this CD applying my own 'Bach'
tests which are to varying extents satisfied in the spirit
of these generous-hearted scores.
Bach's music, to me, is distinguished by over-arching, long-breathed
melodies and this is almost always coupled with dance-like
elements. Crucially, there is also an openness and human
kindness as Bach's music, like Bruckner's symphonies, reflects
outwards to a wider world and spirituality rather than drawing
attention to an individual ‘Mahlerian’ journey. Is this what
Villa-Lobos meant when he said "Bach's music comes from
the infinity to the stars to infiltrate the earth as folkloric
Brasileiras No. 7 is the longest
in the cycle and the most accessible of the works on this
CD. The bold melodies swim through the listener’s (sub)
consciousness long after hearing. The opening Preludio opens
with a long-breathed song passed between the woodwinds
over pizzicato strings. These link back to BBs 4 and 5,
evoking, for me, both communal songs and deep forests.
This main theme is then played by the full violin section.
In the fine RCA alternative Michael Tilson Thomas shapes
and underlines expressively compared with Minczuk’s more
direct approach, which I prefer for its emphasis on natural
structural clarity. Compare for example Minczuk against
Tilson Thomas’s stronger rubato in the repeated rising
lines at 2’57” and 4’00” which risks sectionalising the Preludio.
following Giga and Toccata movements are lighter,
with vigorous yet gentle-humoured fun, including various
Brazilian dances. The imaginative orchestration and energy
in the Toccata make this my favourite. Listen for
the muted trumpet and the coco - South American wooden blocks.
This is Villa-Lobos's own distinct sound-world, typified
by the jagged string motif at 0'37” also lifted from BB4.
final Fuga is the least recognisably Villa-Lobos and
is closest to Bach's great organ fugues, or rather Stokowski's
transcription of one. MTT's woodwinds are ravishing but fail
to point the fugue as rhythmically as Minczuk who shows impressive
structural grip, both lifting and slowing the overarching
line towards it majestic close. A fine sonic buttress.
MTT’s orchestra are smoother here than the São Paulo orchestra,
whose brass section is fruity, especially as the Fuga fully
opens out. But for colour and dramatic fire the Brazilians
get my vote. Notice too how well managed the internal balances
are handled throughout. There are several points where the
brass and particularly the trumpet could easily over-dominate
but Minczuk and his orchestra expertly keep all layers in
managers should get on their knees and beg BIS sound engineers
to flatter their bands with their natural, wide-ranging engineering.
The São Paulo timps truly thunder in demonstration sound
as BB7 finally rises towards the universal.
is fascinating to compare the strings and the voice-only
versions of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, the most
overtly Bach-like BB in the cycle being in toccata and fugue
form. Each has strengths but if pushed I'd prefer the choral
version as contrasted vocal colours better delineate the
fugue and counterpoint. The São Paulo choir boasts an especially
vibrant soprano section in this passionate performance. It
can't be easy singing difficult harmonies over eight minutes
with no distinct words!
Brasileiras No. 8 is a tougher
nut than BB7. The Preludio opens with hymnal, kindly
cascading strings followed by other orchestral sections
adding counterpoint and motifs until this wedge-shaped
movement ends on a grand C.
The Aria (Modinha)
follows Villa-Lobos's pattern of expansion of dance and song
themes towards broadening horizons. Listen for the sudden
rhythmic energy from the strings at 4'41” thrillingly shifting
the dance gear upwards. Similarly, the Toccata's dance-motif
at 2’19” is taken up by the major orchestral sections in
a generous Romantic gesture which lifts the spirits. The
final Fuga lacks the grandeur of its BB7 counterpart.
The line does not soar, but rather darkens and the CD ends
in discordant ambiguity.
the time of writing the cover image on amazon.com incorrectly
lists BB 2, 7 and 8. My cover is correct although pages inside
are in a muddled order. Ooops! Praise though to whoever picked
out the vibrant cover painting which, like the music within
the CD, cannot help but raise a smile.
you are approaching the BBs for the first time it is perhaps
best to begin with the darkly lyrical BB4 on the earlier
sister CD (BIS CD-1250). Overall this developing series is
a triumph for the São Paulo Symphony, Robert Minczuk and
the BIS engineers. Like another great southern hemisphere
orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony, the São Paulo Symphony
is in a distant orbit from the North American/European orchestral
axis. I hope their profile is raised by impressive recordings
like this. More please!
1 "Formidable!" Time magazine Monday, Sep. 27, 1948
Lisa The illustrated lives of great composers: Villa-Lobos (Omnibus,