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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No. 2 Ascenção (1917) [51:08]
New York Skyline Melody (1939) [2:51]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Carl St. Clair
rec. Stadthalle Sindelfingen, 16-19 February 1998; 17-18 April 2000.
CPO 999785-2 [54:08]

The twelve symphonies of Villa-Lobos date from 1916-57 with a gap of twenty-four years between his first five and the remaining seven. Biographer Vasco Mariz dismisses these works as somewhat undistinguished. That comes as a great surprise to these ears given the enormous variety of color, the driving and captivating rhythms and the orchestrational skills that are exhibited in the present example. It is significant, however that a composer who was not given to the rules of formal structure and was abhorrent of “absolute” music would put forth the effort to compose twelve symphonies, the antithesis of program music. 

But aren’t we glad he did! This is music as complex as it is listenable. Villa-Lobos is clearly influenced by his French contemporaries, who were unquestionably the most adventurous and skillful in the art of orchestration during the first half of the twentieth century. They brought the art to its apex, only to have it destroyed by the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War. The composer himself admitted to writing his first five symphonies in the style of Vincent D’Indy, albeit without the influence of folk music. 

This is a work abundant in color. It holds the ear from beginning to end, and the subtle juxtaposition French orchestral color with the dance rhythms of South America is not only captivating, but makes perfect musical logic. At times raucous and at others completely serene, this is music of the city, teeming with an endless variety of personalities.

Villa-Lobos sticks with traditional harmonies in the main, but occasionally lets loose with delicious polytonalities, giving the work a rather offbeat sense of humor and no small hint of film music. The composer definitely sets out to create a series of moods, and he unfailingly succeeds. The work is substantial but never seems tiresome or overwrought. Villa-Lobos had plenty to say, and he said it with a deftness and economy of means that would rival fine fiction. 

The Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart of the Southwestern Radio (goodness, could we not come up with a less complicated name?) plays with great gusto under Carl St. Clair, reveling in the music’s inventive twists and turns. The playing has a youthful freshness that is invigorating coupled with a professionalism that provides much precision and finesse. 

The program is rounded out by a fascinating little piece originally composed for piano. The New York Skyline Melody came about by means of a curious technique. The composer would often plot the contours of a city’s skyline onto graph paper, using the resulting picture as the basis for his melodic construction. This was perhaps an interesting pastime, but one that does not necessarily lend itself to well-structured tunes. This is an interesting little curiosity, but not particularly substantial. 

CPO are to be thanked for their incessant dedication to bringing interesting and unusual music to the public. As usual, the production values are of the first order. Saints be praised that the editors refrained from the verbose and often obtuse dissertations that often accompany releases on this label. 

Kevin Sutton 

See also Review by Patrick Waller



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