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
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.
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.
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.
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.