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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Bachianas Brasileiras - complete
CD1 [73:10]:
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for an orchestra of cellos (1930) [19:50]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 for chamber orchestra (1930) [22:16]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 3 for piano and orchestra (1938) [31:04]
CD2 [40:42]:
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 for orchestra (1930, 1941) [20:27]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for voice and eight cellos (1938/1945) [10:59]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon (1938) [9:07]
CD3 [62:22]:
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7 for orchestra (1942) [27:26]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 8 for orchestra  (1944) [24:48]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 for string orchestra (1944) [10:08]
Rosana Lamosa (sop); Jose Feghali (piano); Anthony La Marchina (cello); Eric Gratton (flute); Cynthia Estill (bassoon) 
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn; Andrew Mogrelia
rec. 14 May 2005, 7, 21, 23 Mar 2004. Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. DDD 
NAXOS 8.557460-62 [3 CDs: 73:10 + 40:42 + 62:22]



Villa-Lobos was much the most important South-American composer with an output numbering more than one thousand works. His style was distinctive, drawing liberally on the exotic rhythms and harmonies of Brazilian folk music. He was also influenced by a period spent in Paris. Most of his music remains little known (for example his twelve symphonies) and there must be many worthwhile yet unrecorded works.

The set of nine Bachianas Brasileiras are his most famous pieces but it is hard to escape the feeling that even they have not done all that well on disc. This is first complete set to be issued on CD at less than full price. Currently there seems to be only one other complete set available and that is conducted by Isaac Karabtchewsky on Iris Music. Enrique Bátiz recorded them all for EMI in the 1980s but that has been deleted and, recently, attempting to collect a complete set may have been a frustrating exercise. So the market was just crying out for this release.

The Bachianas Brasileiras rarely quote directly from Bach’s works but use contrapuntal techniques and forms such as the Fugue or are more subtly evocative of his music. They remain patently Brazilian in spirit and were written over a fifteen year period from 1930. All have multiple movements with quite a variety of instrumentation specified although seven are essentially orchestral works. The exceptions are the most famous, No. 5, which is for voice and eight cellos. There’s also No. 6, one of the least well known, which is for the unusual combination of flute and bassoon. They are not in any way a “cycle” and should be dipped into according to the mood of the moment.

Villa-Lobos was a cellist in his youth and unsurprisingly was often inclined to give the instrument an important role. In the first Bachianas Brasileiras he took this to an extreme by setting it for “an orchestra of cellos”. The size of that orchestra here is not stated but seems relatively small, perhaps just the cello section of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and a few friends. Never mind, the playing is fabulous and I liked the relatively lean approach which does not over-romanticise the music. Despite that, the big tune in the middle movement is lush enough and ineffably bittersweet. This excellent performance was the last to be recorded and was conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. The principal conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Schermerhorn (who was in charge for the rest of the orchestral works), had died less than a month previously. I think Schermerhorn would have been pleased with the result and proud of his cellos.

By contrast, the chamber orchestra specified for No. 2 seems rather large but, again, this does not seem out of place and the playing is also at a very high standard. This is in four movements and is famous for the last, which depicts a steam train chugging across Brazil. No. 3 is for piano and orchestra and also in four movements; it is the most substantial work of the set. The piano part is virtually continuous and very demanding. The pianist José Feghali is a native of Brazil who made his debut at the age of five and is now primarily based in the USA. His contribution is most effective and extends to a credit for editing the recording of this work. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 was originally for the piano and orchestrated later, the form in which it is now usually heard. Listening to the wonderful instrumentation it is hard to imagine the work on the piano alone and, for me, work is the pick of the set (with No. 7 not far behind). Tilson Thomas has made a very fine recording of this work but Schermerhorn is by no means eclipsed.

In No. 5 there are two movements - Cantilena set to a text by Ruth Valdares Corrêa and Dansa for which the text is by Manoel Bandeira. The soprano is Rosa Lamorna and Anthony La Marchina leads the accompaniment of cellos. Their rendition is slightly cool, perhaps not ravishing enough but good in the more exciting passages. No. 6 is the baby of the family, again in two brief movements and taking inspiration from Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and Brazilian street music. There is very fine playing on offer from Erik Gratton and Cynthia Estill.

Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 7, 8 and 9 are all orchestral although the last has only strings and is relatively short. They represent a powerful conclusion to the series and receive very convincing performances here. Overall, my feeling is that Schermerhorn was at least the equal of Bátiz in this repertoire; both have a firm grip on the rather loose structures and secure idiomatic playing. The recordings are very decent too with impressive depth and natural perspectives. Documentation is good and texts are provided for No. 5 with an English translation.

There must be quite a few music-lovers who know only the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and have wondered about the rest. They are in for a treat – here are eight other fascinating and varied works which are at the same level of inspiration. This release should motivate them to bite the bullet although existing recording(s) of No. 5 may need to be retained. Overall, this set is highly recommended, a considerable bargain and a fine memorial to Kenneth Schermerhorn.

For lovers of Villa-Lobos, this is a very important release and I hope that Naxos will further explore his orchestral music. In that context it is worth mentioning that they have an excellent ongoing series of his piano music played by Sonia Rubinsky. Norbert Craft’s disc of guitar music is also a winner (8.553987). Finally, Schermerhorn previously also recorded two of the Choros (Nos. 8 and 9) for Naxos with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (8.555241) - another splendid bargain. These are the obvious places to go after having savoured this set.

Patrick C Waller



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