> Villa-Lobos Symphonies 6&8 4&12 [GR]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Symphonies nos. 6 "Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil" & 8. Suite for strings.
SWR RSO / Carl St. Clair.
Rec 2000?
CPO 999 517-2 [65.00?]
(Seealso Review by Colin Clarke)


Symphonies nos. 4, "Victoria" & 12.
SWR RSO / Carl St. Clair.
Rec 1999?
CPO 999 525-2 [63.00?]


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Following on from the excellent first volume (CPO999 568-2, featuring Nos. 1 & 11 review) of this first-ever integral survey of Villa-Lobos’s 12 symphonies, Carl St. Clair and the Stuttgart Radio orchestra have reached the numerical half-way stage with two further discs containing some of his finest. The Fourth, "Victory" (1919), is probably the best known, not least through the composer's own 1950s recording of it for EMI, with the French Radio orchestra, which is still intermittently available [see also Dorian issue]. In the early days of CD, another archival issue under the composer’s baton was in circulation of the Sixth, "On the Profiles of the Mountains of Brasil" (1944).

The present newcomers surpass both of these in almost every respect. Firstly, the sound is far superior (unsurprisingly), also, despite Villa-Lobos’s inspirational qualities as a conductor in his own music, the French orchestra are ragged compared to their latter-day counterparts in Stuttgart, who rarely put a foot out of place. Now, Villa-Lobos’s music often benefits from the odd rough edge—the orchestral Bachianas Brasileiras are a case in point—but the symphonies, with their more abstract idiom and reined-in expression need slickness of execution. The Fourth in particular comes across as a strong piece, its dazzling instrumentation sounding in many places like a concerto for orchestra.

Villa-Lobos, unorthodox to the last as he was, was not a great symphonic innovator, and the formal credentials of some of the symphonies can seem tenuous. No. 10, not yet covered by CPO but recorded by Gisèle Ben-Dor for Koch, is as much an oratorio as a symphony, while Nos. 6 and 12 (1957) here are as aptly described as Partitas, no more symphonic, perhaps than the more colourful Bachianas Brasileiras. Three of the present clutch follow the same basic ground-plan, common to most of his symphonies: preludial first movement, long adagio—the expressive fulcrum of each work—scherzo and expansive finale where the threads get tied up, Mahler-like, by the end. The Fourth does depart from this by reversing the order of the inner movements, and following the first movement by what amounts to a slow scherzo of almost equal scale. It possesses an imagination of incident that is emulated completely only by the Eighth (1950), with its masterful, if still somewhat thick scoring. By contrast, No. 6 seems merely solid like the mountains whose profiles its depicts, and from which Villa-Lobos is said to have derived his themes as he had already done famously a cityscape in New York Skyline (1939). There are some typically brilliant passages, but overall the Sixth does sound a mite contrived. No. 12, by contrast, which was very well received at its premiere, avoids this but with hindsight is not as memorable as the Fourth or Eighth.

Carl St. Clair clearly has the measure of the style and the music. The performances of Nos. 4, 8 and 12 are top-notch, that of No. 6 seems less convincing as if in parallel to the work’s less compelling inspiration. The sound quality, typically, is excellent: rich, full and with depth. I look forward to the remaining instalments.

Guy Rickards


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