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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Bachianas Brasileiras No.7 (1942) [26:03]
Bachianas Brasileiras No.9 (version for string orchestra) (1945) [8:14]
Bachianas Brasileiras No.9 (version for choir a cappella) (1945) [8:34]
Bachianas Brasileiras No.8 (1944) [23:49]
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra Choir
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Roberto Minczuk
rec. February 2003 (nos. 7, 8); December 2003 (no. 9), Sala Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil. DDD
BIS CD-1400 [67:46]

"The maestro has written about 2,000 works" said a Rio critic of Heitor Villa-Lobos. "I would throw 1,950 of them away". Yet as Time magazine said in 1948 "the remaining 50 are still enough to make Villa-Lobos South America's greatest living composer" 1.
The nine part cycle of Bachianas Brasileiras are overtly Villa-Lobos's tribute, or response, to the music of J.S. Bach. Obviously the listener will pick out fugues and counterpoint but musicologists debate the extent to which the BBs actually reflect Bach's writing. Alongside many European traditions there is clearly also the influence of the popular music of multicultural Brazil; its nightclubs, bars and cinemas where the young composer worked as a cellist1,2. Villa Lobos seems to answer this when he said "You don't need to understand music. You need to feel it"1 so I listened to the music on this CD applying my own 'Bach' tests which are to varying extents satisfied in the spirit of these generous-hearted scores.
J.S. Bach's music, to me, is distinguished by over-arching, long-breathed melodies and this is almost always coupled with dance-like elements. Crucially, there is also an openness and human kindness as Bach's music, like Bruckner's symphonies, reflects outwards to a wider world and spirituality rather than drawing attention to an individual 'Mahlerian' journey. Is this what Villa-Lobos meant when he said "Bach's music comes from the infinity to the stars to infiltrate the earth as folkloric music"?
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7 is the longest in the cycle and the most accessible of the works on this CD. The bold melodies swim through the listener's (sub) consciousness long after hearing. The opening Preludio opens with a long-breathed song passed between the woodwinds over pizzicato strings. These link back to BBs 4 and 5, evoking, for me, both communal songs and deep forests. This main theme is then played by the full violin section. In the fine RCA alternative Michael Tilson Thomas shapes and underlines expressively compared with Minczuk's more direct approach, which I prefer for its emphasis on natural structural clarity. Compare for example Minczuk against Tilson Thomas's stronger rubato in the repeated rising lines at 2:57 and 4:00 which risks sectionalising the Preludio.
The following Giga and Toccata movements are lighter, with vigorous yet gentle-humoured fun, including various Brazilian dances. The imaginative orchestration and energy in the Toccata make this my favourite. Listen for the muted trumpet and the coco - South American wooden blocks. This is Villa-Lobos's own distinct sound-world, typified by the jagged string motif at 0:37 also lifted from BB4.
The final Fuga is the least recognisably Villa-Lobos and is closest to Bach's great organ fugues, or rather Stokowski's transcription of one. MTT's woodwinds are ravishing but fail to point the fugue as rhythmically as Minczuk who shows impressive structural grip, both lifting and slowing the overarching line towards it majestic close. A fine sonic buttress.
The MTT's orchestra are smoother here than the Sao Paulo orchestra, whose brass section is fruity, especially as the Fuga fully opens out. But for colour and dramatic fire the Brazilians get my vote. Notice too how well managed the internal balances are handled throughout. There are several points where the brass and particularly the trumpet could easily over-dominate but Minczuk and his orchestra expertly keep all layers in view.
Orchestral managers should get on their knees and beg BIS sound engineers to flatter their bands with their natural, wide-ranging engineering. The Sao Paulo timps truly thunder in demonstration sound as BB7 finally rises towards the universal.
It is fascinating to compare the strings and the voice-only versions of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, the most overtly Bach-like BB in the cycle being in toccata and fugue form. Each has strengths but if pushed I'd prefer the choral version as contrasted vocal colours better delineate the fugue and counterpoint. The Sao Paulo choir boasts an especially vibrant soprano section in this passionate performance. It can't be easy singing difficult harmonies over eight minutes with no distinct words!
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 8 is a tougher nut than BB7. The Preludio opens with hymnal, kindly cascading strings followed by other orchestral sections adding counterpoint and motifs until this wedge-shaped movement ends on a grand C.
The Aria (Modinha) follows Villa-Lobos's pattern of expansion of dance and song themes towards broadening horizons. Listen for the sudden rhythmic energy from the strings at 4:41 thrillingly shifting the dance gear upwards. Similarly, the Toccata's dance-motif at 2:19 is taken up by the major orchestral sections in a generous Romantic gesture which lifts the spirits. The final Fuga lacks the grandeur of its BB7 counterpart. The line does not soar, but rather darkens and the CD ends in discordant ambiguity.
At the time of writing the cover image on incorrectly lists BB 2, 7 and 8. My cover is correct although pages inside are in a muddled order. Ooops! Praise though to whoever picked out the vibrant cover painting which, like the music within the CD, cannot help but raise a smile.
If you are approaching the BBs for the first time it is perhaps best to begin with the darkly lyrical BB4 on the earlier sister CD (BIS CD-1250). Overall this developing series is a triumph for the Sao Paulo Symphony, Robert Minczuk and the BIS engineers. Like another great southern hemisphere orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony, the Sao Paulo Symphony is in a distant orbit from the North American/European orchestral axis. I hope their profile is raised by impressive recordings like this. More please!

David Harbin
1 "Formidable!" Time magazine Monday, Sep. 27, 1948 (see article)
2 Peppercorn, Lisa The illustrated lives of great composers: Villa-Lobos (Omnibus, 1989)


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