Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Suite Floral (1918) [7:39]
Cirandas (1926) [17:02]
String Quartet No. 5 (1931) [15:52]
Danças Características Africanas (1916) [11:21]
String Quartet No. 12 (1930) [23:36]
(All arrangements by Tadeudo Amaral)
Brazilian Guitar Quartet
rec.13-17 February 2010, Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall/Arthur Frankel Music Center (Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY)
DELOS DE 3409 [75:41]

The Brazilian Guitar Quartet has already appeared with the Delos label through numerous releases, for instance with their Bach Four Suites for Orchestra (see review). Here they present an all Villa-Lobos programme in works for piano or string quartet, arranged by quartet member Tadeudo Amaral.

This is a well considered and very nicely recorded programme which does no harm at all to either the guitar or Villa-Lobos’s music. The Suite Floral leads us in gently, offering a kind of Spanish pastoral feel with hints of Debussy in the form and harmony of gentle pieces such as Idyll in a Hammock and the more lively finale, Joy in the Garden.

Cirandas is another set of piano pieces, here divided into two groups of three, each set in advance of the two string quartet pieces on this CD. A Ciranda is a children’s folksong to accompany a circle dance, giving Villa-Lobos an opportunity to explore Brazilian folk themes and to transform them into new and fascinating pieces which are more sophisticated than their origins would suggest. Beautifully simple, almost naïve melodies such as A Condessa have already been given a level of enigmatic mystery through Villa-Lobos’s treatment, and the guitar sonorities at times take this heightened level of emotive content even further than would be possible on the piano. The rhythmic character of the works is also enhanced through the driving co-ordination of the quartet, and I love the gentler more suggested feel of dance rather than the percussion of hammer on strings as an alternative to the more familiar piano version. The piano arrangements in this programme are supplemented by the three African Folk Dances, subtitled “Dances of the Mixed-Blood Indians of Brazil.” Gil Jardim’s well written booklet notes make the justifiable claim for these as occupying “a seminal position in the Villa-Lobos corpus… [incorporating] typical elements of his later style, such as formal discourse and unorthodox harmonies…”

The most substantial pieces in this programme are of course the string quartets, and anyone familiar with these works in their original form will of course need to adapt their expectations. My own reference is that of the Latin American Quartet’s complete set on the Brilliant Classics label which is a terrific bargain, the single original discs having been reviewed here and here for the relevant pieces. As ever with this kind or arrangement I always consider it best to shelve comparisons with the original instrumentation and evaluate the pieces as they stand - and stand they do in this case, very well indeed. The String Quartet No. 5 uses folk tunes in its first and last movements, and its fairly straightforward lyricism suits the guitar sound superbly. The Brazilian Guitar Quartet have a fine knack for balancing often quite busy accompaniments against melodic line, and the clarity of the voices in the piece is a technical education on all levels, bearing in mind that these are equal instruments, though admittedly the combination of two 6-string and two 8-string guitars does offer a wide harmonic range and spectrum of colour. The String Quartet No. 12 is a more abstract piece, with quasi-atonal material married to superficially traditional compositional techniques. This is by some way the furthest seeking piece in this collection, demanding concentration to follow its complications. Attention always delivers rich rewards in this case, and the guitar quartet makes a serious case for the bustling intensity of the outer movements, the melodic expressiveness of the Andante melancolico and the lively wit and uplifting élan of the Scherzo.

This is a very fine recording and a highly enjoyable programme of arrangements from Villa-Lobos. Alternative instrumentations almost always offer a new and refreshing view on pieces. If you seek good recordings of the piano originals then Sonia Rubinsky’s surveys on the Naxos label are good enough, Débora Halász’s on the BIS label having a bit more life and character. As it is, these guitar quartet arrangements offer an excellent programme of refined and highly involving music.

Dominy Clements

Very fine arrangements and performances.