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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No 2 Ascenção (1917) [51:08]
((i) Allegro non troppo [17:55]; (ii) Allegretto scherzando [8:53]; (iii) Andante moderato [10:43]; (iv) Allegro [13:37])
New York Skyline Melody (1939) [2:51]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Carl St.Clair
rec. Stadthalle, Sindelfingen, 16-19 February 1998 (Symphony), 17-18 April 2000. DDD
CPO 999 785-2 [54:08]



This seems to be part of a project - and perhaps the first? - to record the complete symphonies of Villa-Lobos. It’s now nearing completion.

There are twelve symphonies and in July 2000 Rob Barnett warmly welcomed the 1st and 11th (see review); the following year Colin Clarke was also enthusiastic about a disc of the 6th and 8th (see review). Previous releases also include the 3rd and 9th, 4th and 12th, and 7th symphonies, leaving just the 5th and 10th still outstanding. The 5th symphony of 1920, subtitled The Peace, is lost and presumably will not be part of this series.

It is notable that this recording was made as long ago as 1998 but I am not aware that it has been issued previously. It is a pity that CPO’s documentation (or website) does not address some of the uncertainties expressed above – this is thin and disappointing given that the music will be unfamiliar to most potential purchasers. The back liner also erroneously gives the tempo designation for all four movements as Allegro non troppo but this is corrected in the booklet: as reproduced above. The fine picture on the front by Candido Portinari is some compensation but surely it has a name? There are few other disappointments about this disc and one can always scrub around the web looking for information!

Villa-Lobos is best known for his series of Bachianias Brasileiras and Chôros, and his 17 string quartets are also important works. I read somewhere but can no longer find - perhaps in the ever-changing Wikipedia – that he had been a prolific composer and that he became ill if he didn’t compose. In common with all profusely productive composers he is inevitably prone to accusations of variable quality. But I haven’t yet heard anything by him that wasn’t worth listening to and his Second Symphony is no exception. Perhaps he was not a symphonist on the same axis as Mahler and Sibelius - whose views on the genre were famously at opposite poles - but, if one casts musicology aside, this is certainly enjoyable listening that makes me want to explore the rest of the canon.

The first five symphonies were written in a short space of time around the end of the First World War when Villa-Lobos was back in Brazil after travelling in Europe. They all have sub-titles and the music of Vincent d’Indy seems to have been the most important influence on their composition. Ascenção means “ascension” and the booklet tells us that this “represented the state of mind of the composer at the time” so there does not seem to have been a clear programme. The work was not performed until 1944 and it is not certain that it was completed until the 1940s.

Although a feeling of organic growth is lacking, the overall four movement structure is conventionally symphonic. The first movement has an extended cyclic structure, next is a scherzo, then the slow movement followed by a finale that uses material from the first three. The middle movements are shorter and the most immediately striking. In the scherzo it sounds as if Villa-Lobos may have been poking fun at North American popular music: listen to the strings starting at 0’44” and brass reprise. On the other hand, the slow movement has most attractive thematic material clearly borne of Europe.

The postscript on this disc - New York Skyline melody was originally a piano piece which was written using “millimetrization” a process whereby the contours of the Manhattan skyline were transcribed onto graph paper and used to derive tones. Villa-Lobos later used the process in the Sixth Symphony. If that sounds unpromising, the result is attractive and still sounds characteristic of the composer.

The Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is clearly a very decent band and American conductor Carl St. Clair is in sympathy with the musical idiom. The recorded sound is good too. All-in-all, a most enjoyable disc and whatever the collective term might be for admirers of this composer - Villa-Lobosians? - they will surely want to add this disc to their collection and investigate the whole series; how could it have passed me by for so long? CPO could do them a favour by completing it soon, and then not just sticking a box round the jewel cases (as seems to be their wont) but moving into the slimline field and adding a detailed article about the music to the booklet. Dream on!

Patrick C Waller

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