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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887 – 1959)
Uirapurú (1917)
Bachianas Brasileiras No.4 (1939)
The Emperor Jones (1956)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner
Recorded: Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, May 1999 (Bachianas, The Emperor Jones) and August 2000 (Uirapurú)
BRIDGE 9129 [61:36]
Villa-Lobos’s music has never really been absent from the catalogue, although the sheer size and unevenness of his prolific output will for ever exclude any complete survey of his music. It must nevertheless be mentioned that Dorian launched a complete recording of his string quartets whereas CPO’s recording of the symphonies is well underway. The present release offers three pieces from various periods of Villa-Lobos’s creative life. What is more, one of them is rarely heard, if at all.

As is the case with many other Villa-Lobos works, Uirapurú draws on old Latin American legends, although one is never really sure whether such legends exist or have been invented by the composer to suit his musical purposes. The most important thing, anyway, is the music. In the present instance, this fairly early score, colourful and lushly scored, is one of his finest. Some influences may inevitably be spotted here and there; but the orchestral mastery may not be denied and the music flows effortlessly. No wonder that this brilliant score has already been recorded on several occasions (e.g. by the late Eduardo Mata on Dorian DOR 90211).

The series of Bachianas Brasileiras is fairly well known and some of them (Bachianas No.2 [‘the Little Train’] and the ubiquitous Bachianas No.5 for soprano and celli) are quite popular. Though the whole cycle has also been recorded before (e.g. by Enrique Batiz on EMI CDS 7 47901 8), some of the Bachianas are still rarely heard and recorded separately. Bachianas Brasileiras No.4 is one of them; and I can think of several reasons for its comparative lack of popularity. Although there are many fine things here, the whole seems – to me at least – a bit too single-minded in its homage to Bach and sometimes a bit contrived. The first movements, and particularly the second one, are rather ponderous. The music really comes to life and takes flight about halfway through the third movement and in the final Danza. I must immediately add that my comparatively lukewarm response to this piece has nothing to do with the present performance which is excellent throughout. The fault, if such there is, definitely lies in the music.

I must admit that I had never heard The Emperor Jones before; and frankly I first thought (wrongly so, I must say) that it must be ‘yet another ballet’ by Villa-Lobos. I must now confess (and gladly so!) that this is a fine score that should be heard more often. Vintage Villa-Lobos with superb orchestration and many fine, memorable ideas. The music has much in common with other late scores by Villa-Lobos such as Erosion or Dawn in a tropical Forest as well as with some earlier ones such as Amazonas or Uirapurú. The jungle setting of much of the play suited Villa-Lobos perfectly, and he was again able to conjure up both the impenetrable mystery and the rampant violence of the jungle as well as to suggest the voices of ancient spirits (wordless vocalises by two uncredited vocal soloists) and reflect the often violent events. This is in no way, the product of a failing mind. This one-act ballet (Villa-Lobos’s last) is based on the eponymous play by Eugene O’Neill that caused a sensation when first staged and provided the young Paul Robeson with one of his first notable stage successes (I owe this information to Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent notes).

Jan Wagner obviously loves this music and has its full measure. He coaxes fine readings from his Danish forces who play this unfamiliar music with much assurance and aplomb. If the coupling appeals to you, you should not hesitate to get this release.

Hubert Culot

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