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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 - 1959)
Symphony No. 7 (1945) [36.02]
Sinfonietta No. 1 (1916) [21.19]
SWR Radio Orchestra Stuttgart/Carl St. Clair
Notes in Deutsch, English, Français. Photo of conductor and composer.
Rec. 7 September 1998, Stadthalle, Sindeflingen, Germany
CPO 999 713-2 [57.30]

Stravinsky is quoted to have said, "Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I donít like, itís always by Villa-Lobos?" This would have been rude of him since Villa-Lobos was frequently an honoured guest in his home, so I question the authenticity of the quote. But many find Villa-Lobosís music disquieting, and there is a good reason for this. When a person goes to the conservatory to study composition, one of the things one learns is to spin out notes in the effective imitation of music even in the absence of any genuine motivation. In other words, one learns to fake orgasm. Villa-Lobos is self-taught and so he never learned this, and when he ran out of inspiration, he ran out of music, resulting at times in some odd noises. Fortunately, he hardly ever ran out of inspiration, and in fact produced a half dozen authentic top-drawer masterpieces as well as many hours of very interesting music which is only now being examined in detail in recording projects similar to this one. However wild or strange this music sounds, there is always the sense of a brilliant mind in control.

That having been said, a lot of Villa-Lobos sounds like so much cut off the bolt. Like many composers he could improvise in his own style for hours and like most improvisers he had a few tricks he used over and over. The Symphony #7 sounds to me a lot like the other symphonies in this set. However, if I donít hold that against Mozart and Haydn, I canít and donít hold it against Villa-Lobos. It takes intense listening to hear the substance in this style and the individuality in these works, and it is worth the effort.

The Symphony begins with the same downward scale rush as in Uirapurú, and then itís off to the races with polyrhthymic, polytonal phrases organised according to an ideal of counterpoint that would leave Bach bewildered and speechless, but might bring a benign smile to the face of Charles Ives. Bach would recognise the orchestration, however, itís basic organ practice, one sonority ó one instrument or mixture of instruments ó to a line. Overall it sounds a little like the first movement of Honeggerís Third Symphony, the chaos of war, or maybe a carnival mob scene. For the next three movements this exotic mélange heats up and cools off and makes use of every kind of tune youíve ever heard. Thereís a passing taste of Turandot, and then right next to it a very dignified "Woody Woodpecker Song."

The Sinfonietta sounds unlike anything else Villa-Lobos ever wrote. Based on themes by, and dedicated to, Mozart, it sounds like a student work by Rimsky-Korsakov written in imitation of early Sibelius with a little late Elgar in the mix. If you have any interest in Villa-Lobos at all, you must hear this delightful work!

Paul Shoemaker


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