This CD contains a most unusual piece!
The symphonic poem, Forest of the Amazon, is
one of Villa-Lobos’s very last works and was composed in late 1958 and
early 1959. The music was originally written for the Hollywood film,
Green Mansions, which starred Audrey Hepburn. However, in the
end little of the music seems to have been used in the (unsuccessful)
movie and the composer recycled it into the present work.
The conductor, Alfred Heller, a protégé
of Villa-Lobos, has supplied a detailed liner note about the background
to this extraordinary work which here receives its first complete recording.
It is scored for what sounds like an extremely large orchestra which,
characteristically, includes lots of exotic percussion instruments.
Forest of the Amazon also requires a male chorus, apparently
representing Amerindians (I find it difficult to tell what they are
singing; no texts of the chorus parts are provided and, in fact, it
may be that their ’words’ are a deliberately meaningless chant.) The
other performer is a soprano soloist who sings four songs in Portuguese
(for which texts and translations are provided). The soloist
is none other than Renee Fleming in what must have been one of her earliest
The music is typically prolix and the orchestration
vividly coloured. Indeed, the music put me in mind of a word I’ve often
seen and heard used of the Amazon rain forests: "teeming".
However, even after several hearings I’m still not sure what to make
of it all. Although the work is described as a symphonic poem I can’t
really discern any symphonic structure; rather, the work sounds like
a succession of short, unrelated movements (there are twenty in all).
I must say that, as an adaptation of film music into symphonic music,
Forest of the Amazon doesn’t seem to me to be anywhere near as
successful as Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. I
suspect I would have found this episodic music easier to follow and
appreciate if there had been a track-by-track narrative description
in the notes. Unfortunately, this is absent though the notes are excellent
on the subject of the work’s origins. As it is, Heller’s notes imply
that the music follows fairly closely the plot of Green Mansions
but few listeners will have any knowledge of this now-forgotten film.
I have to say that I think that the work is over-long
in relation to the strength of the musical material. It contains some
interesting moments but the musical invention doesn’t seem to me to
be capable of sustaining a 74-minute time span. Judicious pruning of,
say, 20 minutes would have helped and it might have been better still
if Villa-Lobos had condensed his score into one or two suites, each
lasting 20 to 25 minutes.
The Moscow orchestra play what must have been very
unfamiliar music efficiently and Renee Fleming sings with her usual
refulgent tone. The last piece she sings, ‘Sentimental Melody’ (track
18) will particularly delight her many admirers – of whom I am one.
The men’s chorus seem to add little to the proceedings and I think their
music would have been a prime candidate for the editor’s pencil. Clearly,
this project has been a labour of love for Alfred Heller and he seems
to conduct with spirit.
A minor Russian label originally issued the recording
and this reissue by Delos should bring it to wider attention. Ultimately,
however, I suspect this CD will be of greatest appeal to devotees of
Villa-Lobos’s music who should snap up this rarity while it remains
also review by Rob Barnett