The Brazilian Cello
Alberto NEPOMUCENO (1864 - 1920)
Romance [3:59]; Tarantella [3:34]
Francisco MIGNONE (1897 - 1986)
Modinha [3:56]
João OCTAVIANO (1892 - 1962)
Canto Elegiaco [2:09]
Luiz Henrique LEVY (1861 - 1935)
Romance sans Paroles [3:37]
Henrique OSWALD (1852 - 1931)
Berceuse [3:24]
Seresta [1:53]
Camargo GUARNIERI (1907 - 1993)
Sonata No.1 (1931) [16:36]
Cantilena No.1 (1974) [4:11]
Sonata No.2 (1955) [12:44]
Cantilena No.2 (1982) [3:38]
Sonata No.3 (1977) [12:16]
Ponteio and Dança (1946) [5:23]
Tânia Lisboa (cello); Cristina Capparelli (piano)
rec. no dates or venues supplied. 2009?
MERIDIAN RECORDS CDE 84572 [78:30]  

If the title of this disc - ‘The Brazilian Cello’ puts you off by sounding too specialist or esoteric - don’t be. This is a well put together and performed disc of music that is as pleasurable as it is little known. I do think that Meridian have missed a marketing trick by not making more of the fact that it contains the complete works for cello and piano by Camargo Guarnieri. By some distance Guarnieri is the best known composer here and on the evidence of the music presented the best composer too. In comparison to his three well argued Sonatas and rather beautiful shorter works, the salon-esque nature of the bulk of the rest of the programme is made rather apparent. This is a very well-filled disc running to over seventy eight minutes. Of that nearly fifty-five minutes is by Guarnieri so I don’t think any Trade Description Acts would have been contravened if this composer and his music ‘headlined’ the disc more obviously.
The first third of the disc is devoted to the aforementioned ‘salon’ works by six different composers only one of whom contributes more than a single work. All of these seven pieces are well-crafted miniatures but only one could be thought to show the nationalistic individuality to merit the ‘Brazilian’ epithet. Slightness in itself is not a problem but it does mean the disc divides into two distinct portions; perhaps best to consider these simpler works as an appetiser for the more substantial ‘meat’ to follow. One element it does highlight is how Euro-centric these South American composers were before the likes of Guarnieri or Villa-Lobos in Brazil or Ginastera in Argentina established themselves. Interesting that the most individual of these miniatures is the Modinha by Francisco Mignone who is the only other composer I had previously encountered - the fruitful BIS/São Paulo Symphony Orchestra collaboration has produced a disc of his colourful orchestral works. Mignone manages to write a work that is very much in the lyrical/romantic style of the salon genre but with enough sinuous sly grace in both the melody and the gently musing piano accompaniment to lift it far beyond the platitudes of the rest of this group of works. A couple of times, particularly in his use of long slow descending glissandi I heard a pre-echo of Piazzolla - this piece is a real winner. One thing this opening sequence does establish is the quality of the playing and engineering of the disc. Brazilian cellist Tânia Lisboa clearly identifies with every note. By the very very highest standards of string playing this is good not exceptional cello playing - just occasionally I detect a little stiffness in the bow arm and the tone thins in alt but she is a passionate and convincing guide to this unfamiliar repertoire. Her accompanist, Cristina Capparelli, adapts her technique to the various styles and both are well recorded in an appealingly natural acoustic - although the rather brief liner-note makes no mention of recording dates or venues which is curious given the label’s (rightly) proud stance regarding their ‘natural sound’ recordings. I tried locating this information on the company’s website but that seems to be out of commission at the time of writing using any of IE, Chrome or Firefox as browsers.
Camargo Guarnieri is a very important South American composer. Luckily, there are increasing numbers of CDs available - most notably his symphonies on BIS from the excellent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the complete Piano Concertos on a pair of Naxos discs. I reviewed the second of these recently and was bowled over by the quality of both music and performance. Now the complete works for cello and piano presented here add both to my knowledge and admiration for his work. Rather neatly the three sonatas were written at - approximately - twenty year intervals so giving us the listener a neat graph of his compositional development. So in 1931 Guarnieri was just completing five years of study with Lamberto Baldi. Baldi had introduced him to the works of Stravinsky and Bartok amongst others and his enthusiasm for them here is apparent as it is still largely undigested - around 5:00 into the opening Tristonho of the first sonata [track 8] illustrates the degree of homage. The central Apaixonadamente [passionately] is interesting because it has more than an echo of a Villa-Lobos Bachianas in the sense there is a similar feel of adapting Bach’s contrapuntal techniques to something more nationalistic. But it is with the closing Selvagem [wild] that he starts to move away from pounding Bartokian rhythms into something more individual. Capparelli makes a tremendous job of her piano part here - personally I like the balance with the piano a fully equal partner although I could imagine some listeners might feel the cello was occasionally swamped. If so I would take that as a miscalculation by a young composer not the engineers or performers. The placing of the Cantilena No.1 - although a much later work- between the sonatas works well. This is a gently lyrical song-like work as the title implies providing a welcome break from the rigours of the more overtly serious sonatas. Indeed the planning of this ‘half’ of the disc works far better than the haphazardly saccharin opening tracks. I can’t help feeling two different programmes were compressed onto a single CD. This sense of reduction is heightened by the abbreviated liner note that needs to be more detailed for such unfamiliar works. At one point the liner states “as observed by Verhaalen…” without having mentioned this writer earlier. In fact it is the Marion Verhaalen who wrote Camargo Guarnieri, Brazilian Composer. Indiana University Press in 2005. The context does suggest a longer original note that has been cut. My impression is Meridian do themselves a disservice by not presenting this disc and the music on it in a more ‘luxurious’ manner - all of the packaging smacks somewhat of an economy drive.
By the time of the second sonata in 1955 Guarnieri was clearly much more of his own man. On purely technical terms he has upped the stakes for the cellist and the dissonance level and sense of instruments in conflict is much higher. None of the three sonatas are extended works - the first is the longest at just over sixteen minutes - but the sense of concentration and the distillation of musical ideas is palpable here. The piano writing is still highly virtuosic but the use of contrapuntal linear writing is more dominant. The central Melancolico is another winner - perhaps here the piano should accompany more in the instrumental balance, the sustained lyrical line of the cello occasionally being engulfed by the motile piano writing. It provides the perfect balance for the boisterous Festivo which is written in double-stops throughout for the cellist. Lisboa plays well and with great gusto without that very last drop of apparent ease which the greatest players somehow seem to exude. The second and third sonatas are separated by Cantilena No.2 written when Guarnieri was in his-mid seventies. By its own frame of reference this is another beautifully lyrical and passionate piece. The contemporary music train had moved on long before, so for a work of the 1980s this does sound positively conservative. Curiously, in parts it sounds less radical than the earlier sonatas but this could be as much to do with a function of its miniature form rather than anything else. The movement away from modernistic excess to neo-classical rigour is completed by the third sonata. This is the shortest and tersest of the three. Not that with increasing years is there any sense that the energy is flagging - far from it. Indeed the opening Sem pressa [track 16] contains some of the leanest most muscular writing on the disc. Guarnieri’s special gift for folk-inflected lyrical melancholy is reflected in another beautiful central movement - Sereno e Triste. The three central movements of the sonatas are highlights on this disc and here Lisboa is in her element capturing the nostalgic regret of the music perfectly. With the final Com alegria it seems to me that Guarnieri has found the best balance between the motoric energy of the first sonata finale and the neo-classical severity of the second. Indeed, on reflection, I think this last sonata is the finest of the three by a short head. The CD closes with what is - apparently - Guarnieri’s best known work for this combination of instruments; the Ponteio and Dança of 1946. The quality of the writing in miniature form here again throws into relief the limitations of the earlier group of works. Simple need not be simplistic. Perhaps these works are well known in the cello-playing fraternity but this was my first acquaintance. They are ideal recital material expressive, exciting and instantly engaging by turns. But those are the very same qualities that could be applied to all of Guarnieri’s compositions.
A disc full of music that at its best is very fine indeed and richly deserving to be more widely known.
Nick Barnard 

A disc full of music that at its best is very fine indeed and richly deserving to be more widely known.