> Villa-Lobos Amerindian symphony 374882 [GR]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Symphony no. 10: "Amerindia".
Carla Wood (mezzo-soprano), Carlo Scibelli (tenor), Nmon Ford-Livene (bass-baritone)
Santa Barbara Choral Society, USCB Chamber Choir, Donald Brinegar Singers
Santa Barbara SO / Gisèle Ben-Dor.


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With CPO currently about halfway (at least numerically) through their cycle of Villa-Lobos’s twelve symphonies, this release from Koch of the largest, the choral-and-orchestral Tenth, is most timely. Written to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Brasilian capital, São Paolo in 1552, it was first performed in Paris five years later under the composer’s baton in an apparently typical ramshackle performance. That it was not well received is unsurprising, even if the performance had been as well drilled as that on this new recording. It is an occasional work out of its time, in annotator Steven Ledbetter’s words "a kind of musical history lesson" that cannot have had much relevance to a Parisian audience in 1957. Written in a style more redolent of film music, as a novelty it must have seemed desperately anachronistic when compared to other new music of the day.

The work’s structure cannot have aided its appreciation, being as much an oratorio (which can go under the title of Sumé Pater Patrum, ‘O Greatest Father of Fathers’) as a symphony, neither form in vogue critically. The symphony centres on the huge 24-minute fourth movement De Beata Virgine Dei Mater Maria, a kind of suite in four sections functioning like a work-within-a work. For the most part the music sets extracts from a huge poem by Father José de Anchieta depicting the arrival of the Portuguese, their joy at discovering the teeming continent, expressed in praise of the Virgin Mary and their rejection of Protestantism, expressed as an image of an Infernal Dragon representing "death-bringing Calvin". Like so much of Villa-Lobos’ orchestral output, the music is richly illustrative but here the crucial dramatic event—the concluding "Infernal Dragon" section—seems underplayed by the very richness of the palette he used.

For all its weaknesses structurally and dramatically, the Tenth Symphony is a fascinating piece, full of remarkable music instantly recognisable as Villa-Lobos. The opening allegro, The Earth and its Creatures, is perhaps too long for its material and as with many of his symphonies, symphonic development is only fitfully present. The succeeding War Cry is wistful and gentle, a "lament for the lost tranquillity and isolation of the countryside" to quote Ledbetter again rather than a call to arms of the native populace to resist the Portuguese. (And as a descendant of the conquerors, whether or not there is any truth in any of the composer’s outrageous claims to Amerindian origin, Villa-Lobos always presented the arrival of the Europeans as a good thing; the Indians’ rather different perspective would not, I suspect, ever have occurred to him.) It is the first to feature voices, and has more vigorous central sections that sound straight out of the Bachianas Brasileiras, as does the third movement, a celebratory scherzo subtitled Iurupichuna (a species of small, magical monkey). The fifth and final movement, Glory in Heavens and Peace on Earth, is more fully choral (like the fourth) and continues to set extracts from Anchieta’s poem. Its unquestioning affirmation may strike many listeners as a touch hollow, but it is hard to see how else this large work could reasonably have concluded. I feel bound to comment also that the choral writing does not contain the same subtlety as do the works of Hyperion’s wonderful CD of Villa-Lobos Sacred Choral Music (CDA 66638).

Gisèle Ben-Dor, who has previous conducted some revelatory recordings for the same label of Ginastera (3-7149-2) and Revueltas (3-7421-2), secures a committed and full-blooded account of this teeming and problematic score. (She also provides a highly informative note on the difficulties the music presents to a conductor.) The three soloists and the amalgamated choruses sing with more energy than refinement (entirely appropriate for this repertoire, however) ably supported by the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra who are the real stars of the show. Never a disc or a work to win competitions or great plaudits, perhaps, that should not detract from what is a splendid achievement all round. Self-recommending to lovers of this composer (I count myself for one), it is certainly worth exploring by those who know him only for the Bachianas Brasileiras.
Guy Rickards

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