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
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
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).
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
Second Bird Song (Vocalise)
On the way to the Hunt
Third Bird Song
The Indians in search of the Girl
Fourth Bird Song
Rima's Music (Vocalise)
Forest Fire (Finale).