Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Forest of the Amazon (1958)

Renée Fleming (sop)
Chorus of the Moscow Physics and Engineering Institute
Moscow Radio SO/Alfred Heller
rec Nov-Dec 1994, April 1995, Studio 5, State House for Broadcasting and Recording, Moscow. DDD
DELOS DE 1037 [74.05]
  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

To 'prepare' myself for this work I played through the first disc of EMI's (now deleted) six CD set of Villa-Lobos conducting his own music (CZS 7 67229 2). This was recorded in Paris between 1954 and 1958. It still sounds surprisingly good with the composer's hand-picked team of singers (Victoria de los Angeles, Maria Kareska) and instrumentalists (Aline van Barentzen, Manoel Braune, Magda Tagliaferro, Felicia Blumental). The work I wanted to hear was another epic running 73.02 compared with the Forest's 74.05. I had only recently reviewed the Cyprès re-release of Choros XII and decided it was time to try out the so-called 'four suites' of music: Descrobrimento de Brasil (The Discovery of Brazil). This was written in 1937 for Humberto Mauro's 1937 film of the same name. The four suites play quite happily as a sequence. Despite predating The Forest of the Amazon by about twenty years much the same qualities light up the music: mystical particles mingle with street songs and dances, the majesty of the great sea journey across the South Atlantic and the awe-inducing Matto Grosso interact at so many levels, the rattle of gourds contrasts with gritty dancing rhythms and Hollywood-style tunes of generous expanse and plush depth.

The Forest of the Amazon is a 20 canto musical poem based on W.H. Hudson's novel 'Green Mansions'. I recall seeing this book (was it not part of a tetralogy) in Paignton's Winner Street second-hand book-shops in the early 1970s. It is a deeply unfashionable book now, rather like the once colossal sellers by Axel Munthe, Howard Spring and Howard Fast.

'Green Mansions' tells the story of Rima, the child who can speak in the tongues of the animals. No twee 'Doolittling' here. This is much more mystical. The music catches tragedy and ecstatic relaxation and the solo voice plays an anchoring role. We need not trouble to note the plot. Suffice to say that it attracted MGM who commissioned the score from Villa-Lobos. The studio made the film with some leading stars of the day (Audrey Hepburn as Rima, Anthony Perkins, Lee J Cobb. Mel Ferrer directed). Critically speaking it did not do well.

The composer was told not to orchestrate the music because the studio had their own orchestrators. He was having none of this and completed the score in full-staved version. However when the film was premiered in March 1959, Alfred Heller, who worked closely with the composer and whose research and patiently inspired direction made this disc possible, was appalled to find that little of Villa-Lobos's score had survived on the soundtrack. Instead there was a suits-friendly score by Bronislaw Kaper, some Villa-Lobos simulacra and a few ... a very few ... real Villa-Lobos sequences.

The composer was angry. Fortunately for us he decided to create the present tone poem from the extensive music he had written for celluloid. This is the end result.

The Overture rudely, restlessly and raucously bursts in with brass and rasping male chorus and an ever-mobile string underpinning. Much of the music is feral and strides effortlessly between The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. The work is coeval with Bohuslav Martinu's Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the enigmatic music - especially the percussion lines - recall the Czech's writing in that work.

Playful interludes including brittle Waltonian liquorice and hustle intervene to break the mood (track 2 2.14, track 5) and then melt into a deep-striding lyrical expression that has more in common with Korngold (the second movement of the Sinfonietta) than with Stravinsky. Villa-Lobos was a gifted tune-smith and no doubt Hollywood realised this even if they treated his music with their usual ignorance. The jaunty Baxian/Waltonian accent is also at play in the Fourth Bird Song.

The composer is good at evoking the weighty majesty of natural spectacle as at the end of track 3. That track is a good one to sample - a miniature tone poem within a tone poem. This momentously majestic mood is well to the fore in the glories of the soprano's vocalise over the chattering horns and shadowing string carols of the Finale (20). Fleming's held note at 2.15 (20) is a thing of wonder and if we are prompted to remember a certain famous Bachianas that is no bad thing.

The soprano appears role in four Bird Songs (tracks 4, 6, 10, 13) in which she vocalises - sometimes briefly. There is also a Vocalise so called (7). The Second Bird Song places the solo melisma discreetly amid high strings, woodwind bird song and harp riffs. The effect places the music between Debussy's Faun and Roussel's luxuriant First Symphony. The Vocalise in track 7 picks up and caringly spins the confident melody which winds in wonder through the end of Nature's Dance (track 5); a lyrical impulse also candidly on display at the end of Sails (track 8). Renée Fleming reminds us that this is the same Villa-Lobos who wrote the famous Fifth Bachianas. Listen to the pacing and dynamic balancing she despatches with such feeling in Love Song - the third of four songs (Sails, Twilight Song, Love Song, Sentimental Melody) in which words are sung. The words, which are printed in the English monoglot booklet, are given in the sung Portuguese as well as parallel English translation. Collectors of Fleming's recorded legacy must catch this CD which was taken down before she began her rapid ascent to household star status. Listen to the tasteful but untamed way she handles the diminuendo 'hairpin' at the end of Love Song.

I recently heard two memorable characterisations of voices of the last century. Bob Dylan's voice was described as a marriage of diesel and peaches while Judy Garland's was a perfect balance between damage and glamour. Fleming's voice is all peaches and glamour and, at this stage in her meteor flight, blessedly low on the matron-like vibrato that drives people away from serious music the world over and which yet seems to be affected as a style ornament 'to die for' by vocal coaches. Sheerly delightful.

The only minuscule technical blemishes appear in track 3 (4.15 and later in the track) where there is a gentle shushing click at pppp level.

The orchestra's string section is very well stocked and the microphone placement takes you close in to the action.

This is not the work's only recording. A much cut down version was recorded by the composer in the late 1950s on United Artists LP UAS-5506 with Bidu Sayão, soprano (who came out of retirement to make the recording), the Symphony of the Air and the composer conducting. I have not heard that mono recording but there is a pretty exotic alternative which I suspect is difficult get hold of except in Brazil. This is Kuarup kcd030 -

Film music buffs might easily overlook this release. In fact it should be of prime concern to them as the most faithful recreation of Villa-Lobos's score, available.

I wonder if there is any chance at all of a DVD coupling Mauro's 1937 film with the MGM film. Too much to hope?

This Delos disc is a rare chance to appreciate the epic Villa-Lobos. It was discerning of the company to rescue this recording from the Russian Consonance label. It has been securely and splendidly re-mastered by Jeff Mee.

There is much more Villa-Lobos to appreciate. What we need now are recordings of the two late suites for chamber orchestra, the tone poems Francette e Piá (1957) and Madona (1945) with the operas: A Menina nas nuvens (1958), Yerma (1956), Magdalena (1947) and the two cello concertos. In addition a complete edition of his myriad songs with orchestra would not come amiss. I suspect that these would find the same numerous audience as the Canteloube songs.

Sample, in good sound, this untamed tone poem written after the composer's final string quartet (No. 17) and final symphony (No. 12).

Rob Barnett


The first entry is to the superb Villa-Lobos Museum site (in English)


The movements of The Forest of the Amazon are:-

Deep in the Forest
Excitement among the Indians
First Bird Song
Nature's Dance
Second Bird Song (Vocalise)
On the way to the Hunt
Third Bird Song
Twilight Song
The Indians in search of the Girl
Fourth Bird Song
Rima's Music (Vocalise)
Head Hunters
Love Song
Sentimental Melody
Forest Fire (Finale).

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: