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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and orchestra of cellos (1938/1945) [11:05]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 version for piano solo (1930-1941) [18:57]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon (1938) [9:09]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for an orchestra of cellos (1930) [19:11]
Donna Brown (soprano); Jean Louis Steuerman (piano); Sato Moughalian (flute); Alexandre Silvério (bassoon)
Cellists of the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra/Robert Minczuk
rec. Sala São Paolo, São Paolo Brazil, December 2003 (Nos. 1, 5), February 2003 (No.4), February 2005 (No.6)
BIS CD-1410 [59:23]

Track samples available

The final, glowing instalment of the complete Bachianas Brasileiras on BIS.

This is the final instalment of the complete Bis recording of the Bachianas Brasileiras, with Nos. 7-9 having already received glowing reviews, and the remaining pieces, Nos. 2, 3 and 4 played Jean Louis Steuerman as piano soloist. Further reading on Villa-Lobos can be found on Musicweb-International here.
This disc will inevitably be targeted by Villa-Lobos fans as it contains one of his most famous and beloved works – the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and orchestra of violoncelli, which has one of those melodies which one feels must have had some kind of pre-existence – flying around in some kind of artistic limbo waiting to be picked up on by the right composer. Yes, the Cantelina has a structural and conceptual relative in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, and a relationship with Bach’s Air on the G string has also been mentioned, but with the plucking guitar-like strings of the cellos it will always be more of a dusky South American and safely distant cousin of its northern counterparts. Many collectors will have the version sung by Victoria de Los Angeles as a reference, and in this I am no exception. Donna Brown makes for an excellent soloist on this recording, with a bright, clear sounding soprano. Her vibrato is quite wide and operatic, but nicely tight and suitably restrained in the aria of the first movement. Much of the intensity in this performance is held back for the second movement, in which Donna Brown throws in plenty of exuberant bravura, and while the two movements balance well I miss a little of the mystery and subversive exotic passion which can exist beneath the surface of that expressive Aria. I’ve heard and indeed performed this work – admittedly arranged for flute orchestra – enough times not to suffer the bias of holding de Los Angeles up as some kind of holy grail in this regard, but while this is a very nice performance indeed it hasn’t grabbed my imagination or struck me as being particularly memorable. It’s not likely to re-visit me in my dreams, but if it does before I finish this review I’ll be entirely honest and report back.
Villa-Lobos wrote the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 originally for piano, later orchestrating it himself. This makes it the only one of the set to have been composed for a solo instrument, and the booklet notes by Irineu Franco Perpétuo point out the similarity of the opening Prelúdio to the beginning of the Toccata from J.S. Bach’s Partita BWV 830. The recurring motief is treated to some sensitive harmonisations and counterpoint, but ends in the kind of heart-on-sleeve bombast whose honesty you can’t help admiring. This kind of treatment is taken further and becomes a defining character of the following Choral, subtitles ‘Song of the Jungle’ which would rouse any football crowd given the right singer and text. Some of this music is written over four staves, and it sounds like it. The next movement is an Aria which quotes a Brazillian ballad called O mana deix’ eu ir, and the finale Miudinho is inhabited by the infectious 2/4 dance rhythms of the north-east of Brazil. While this work doesn’t do much more than add ammunition for those who would argue that Villa-Lobos is an overrated composer, Jean Louis Steuerman’s remarkable performance certainly turns this piece into a pianistic tour de force.
The Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 is another odd-man in this cycle of compositions, being the only chamber music example. Written with perfect idiomatic sensitivity to the qualities of each instrument, the music is at first impression relatively straightforward and approachable, but the complexities of counterpoint and the ongoing musical dialogue make this a piece you need to listen to a few times before appreciating everything that is going on. I don’t mean that it’s ‘difficult’ music, just that, as with a Bach two-part invention, the brain is put to work more actively than with some other kinds of music, and sometimes gets caught out. The players are truly excellent in this piece, and other that a little untidiness around those ‘unplayable’ runs on the flute at around 4:13 in the second movement the performance is as good as flawless.
The star of this CD for me is the raunchily refined and deeply expressive Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for cello orchestra. The sonorities are fascinating for a start, and the playing of the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra cellists with Antônio Meneses keenly observes and superbly executes all those swinging rhythms. Their sense of colour and dynamic means that the various lines of counterpoint, melody and accompaniment are always clear, which is always a challenge in such a homogenous ensemble. This is also helped by the nicely separated stereo spread of the musicians in this excellent recording. The contrast in Latin dance character and ‘universal’ musical content make this a fitting conclusion to this CD and this excellent set of the complete Bachianas Brasileiras.
Did I dream of the Aria of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 last night? Well, yes, but the performance on this recording kept getting barged out of the way by someone else’s. Maybe that’s the problem – it’s just that little bit too polite: beautiful indeed, but more genteel rather than really sexy.
Dominy Clements          


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