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 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
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 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!