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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Instrumental and Orchestral Works

CD 1
1. Bachianas brasileiras No. 3 (1938) [29:12]
2. Mômoprecóce - Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1931) [23:26]
CD 2
3. Fantasia for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra  (1959) [10:31]
4. Concerto for guitar and small orchestra (1951) [17:32]
5. A próle do bébé No. 1 (1918) [15:52]
6. Festa no sertão (1936-7) [5:08]
7. Alma brasileira (1925) [5:17]
8. A lenda do caboclo (1920) [4:09]
9. Impressões seresteiras (1936-37) [6:27]
Cristina Ortiz (piano) (1,2, 5-9), John Harle (saxophone) (3), Angel Romero (guitar) (4)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (1,2)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner (3)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos (4)
rec. 1976-77 (1,2: ADD), 1990 (3: DDD); 1985 (4: DDD); 1974 (5-9: ADD)
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3815292 [52:52 + 65:42]

Gemini is the latest in EMI's bargain twofer series devoted to individual composers. It repackages previously released material on two well-filled discs – and all for less than a tenner. The performances tend to be a mix of analogue and digital recordings of varying vintage but they do offer canny or curious buyers a chance to sample a composer’s œuvre with minimal outlay.
The Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos is probably the most distinguished classical composer to come out of South America and his compatriot, pianist Cristina Ortiz, is clearly in her element playing his music. The synthesis of European and Latin-American musical styles is evident in the Bachianas brasileiras No. 3 (‘Brazilian Bach-pieces’) written in 1938. It’s probably one of Villa-Lobos’s best-known works but it gets a curiously muted performance here. At the helm is pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who doesn’t seem at all comfortable with this fusion of styles. Admittedly these performances were taped in the late 1970s, when he was relatively new to the podium, which may help to explain the unsatisfying results. The recording doesn't help either; the piano is somewhat aggressive and the overall sound is rather close and congested, with signs of strain in the tuttis.
Not an auspicious start then, but the more bravura Mômoprecóce, or ‘King of Carnival’ from 1931, fares rather better, with much more of a sense of involvement and focus. The orchestral sound seems to expand rather more naturally and the piano doesn't have that distracting edge either. And the music, despite its distinctive Latin flavours, has the sweep of Rachmaninov in its grander - but nor grandiose - passages, not to mention something of Gershwin in its more rhapsodic middle section. Individual instrumental contributions are well caught – listen to that extended dialogue between piano and timpani – and the soloist races into a rousing coda closely pursued by the bass drum. Exhilarating stuff and much the best piece on this disc. Certainly a work that deserves to be heard more than it is.
The second disc continues the animated mood with the Fantasia for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra (1951). John Harle’s playing is always relaxed and assured, showing plenty of verve in the concerto’s more virtuosic moments. The balance between soloist and orchestra - the ASMF - is well nigh ideal; the sound is sumptuous without being over upholstered and the saxophone has a lovely seductive glow, even in its more exposed passages. The 1991 recording is DDD and a vivid reminder of the excellent sonic results EMI achieved early in the digital age.
The Guitar Concerto, written for the great Andrès Segovia (1893-1987), is an earlier DDD recording in a similarly sympathetic acoustic, although the soloist is placed relatively far forward. Angel Romero (b. 1946) may be more closely associated with the Rodrigo concerto yet he plays the Villa-Lobos with obvious affection and grace, the opening Allegro preciso suitably crisp in articulation, the Andante warmly lyrical. The cadenza – Segovia demanded one before he would perform the piece – is as much an exercise in colour as it is in dexterity. A thoroughly enjoyable performance this, with Jesús López-Cobos and the LPO in good form too.
The rest of the disc is devoted to works for solo piano, beginning with the six-movement A próle do bébé No. 1 or ‘Baby’s Family’, written in 1918. It is an engaging set of miniatures, each devoted to a different doll, and is every bit as enchanting as Debussy’s Children’s Corner. Indeed, the writing is strongly impressionistic. – just listen to the opening flourish in Branquinha (‘The Porcelain Doll’) – but the earthy rhythms spring from different soil. Negrinha (‘The Wooden Doll’) has tremolo passages strongly reminiscent of the virtuoso Tremolo by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), also much influenced by the music of Latin America. The last piece in the set, the rollicking  O Polichinelo (‘Punch’), has obvious affinities with the opening of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Ortiz really is in control here, each piece nicely judged. The piano is a little forward but the recording only shows its age in the treble, where it is apt to sound rather brittle.
The remaining items on the disc also date from 1974 and the piano sound is not at all flattering. The treble is aggressive and the acoustic somewhat shallow. A pity, as these pieces - each lasting around five minutes - are so well played.
A qualified recommendation then, but if you want value for money you can’t really go wrong with this set. And although the music is uneven in terms of quality and performance, the delectable Mômoprecóce on the first disc and much of the music on the second is well worth adding to your collection.
Dan Morgan



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