Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No. 6, On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil (1944) [28:49]
Symphony No. 7 (1945) [39:28]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. 21 February-5 March 2011, Sala São Paulo, Brazil
NAXOS 8.573043 [68:18]
Heitor Villa-Lobos is probably best known for just a handful of works; the Bachianas Brasileiras, Chôros, Momoprecoce and several rather fetching pieces for piano solo. Adventurous listeners may wish to leave the beaten track for something more exotic, such as The Forest of the Amazon for soprano, chorus and orchestra (review) and the ballets Uirapurú and The Emperor Jones (review). The latter were a real find, and a reminder that there are still many sides to this under-rated composer that need to be explored.
Enter Naxos, with their newly announced Villa-Lobos symphony project, of which this is the first instalment. The São Paulo Orchestra, based in Brazil’s second city, are led here by the Brazilian-born conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky. His bio is impressive, with engagements both at home and abroad; as for the orchestra - also known by the initials OSESP - they’ve recorded a number of discs for BIS and Chandos under John Neschling and Yan Pascal Tortelier respectively. I’ve reviewed several of them and I have to say I’ve not been terribly impressed. Their latest offering - Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie and Symphonische Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten with veteran Frank Shipway - was particularly disappointing (review).
The orchestra made their debut at this year’s BBC Proms under their newly appointed chief Marin Alsop. They’re certainly a committed and enthusiastic band, and although their ‘New World’ struck me as rather uneven it had some winning touches. Alsop is a good orchestral trainer, and I suspect these players will benefit immensely from her tutelage. In the meantime I’m not convinced these Brazilians have reached anything near their full potential, although this Villa-Lobos cycle does look promising - on paper at least.
Speaking of paper, the melodic structure of the Sixth Symphony is created by plotting the outlines of Brazilian mountains on a piece of transparent graph paper; Villa-Lobos allocated pitches to the vertical lines and durations to the horizontal ones. A rather odd conceit I suppose, but no more unusual a compositional tool than a pair of dice or a copy of the I Ching. What of the music itself? All the symphonies - bar the Fifth, which is lost - have already been recorded by Carl St Clair and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and are bow available in a single box from CPO. Several of the individual discs have garnered good reviews here on MWI and elsewhere.
The Sixth Symphony is a curious affair. It starts with a swoony tune before it builds to a series of restrained peaks; indeed, reticence seems to be the watchword here, and Villa-Lobos uses his considerable resources sparingly. The OSESP are in good form, and the recording is full and warm. The Lento is particularly haunting. Karabtchevsky draws sounds of surprising subtlety and nuance from his players; those striding bass-lines are especially well done, the nicely proportioned climaxes much more clearly focused than they are in that wayward Strauss recording.
The Allegretto and Allegro of the Sixth are well characterised and the rhythms of the former are nicely sprung. That said it’s not the most memorable music, and the end of the Allegro is somewhat crudely fashioned. Still, Villa-Lobos makes amends with an imposing finale - the bass drum is thrilling - and Karabtchevsky keeps this bustling music firmly under control at all times. It’s certainly a promising start to this cycle, even if the writing is competent rather than outstanding. No quibbles about the playing or recording though; both are splendid.
The LSO premiered the huge Seventh Symphony in 1949. As Villa-Lobos authority Fábio Zanon points out in his lucid liner-notes, there’s much doubling and tripling here, with two harps, a piano and a synthesiser thrown in for good measure. What a magnificent noise they make, the Allegro presented in breathtaking CinemaScope and vivid Technicolor. The potential for disaster is pretty high in such a sprawling piece, but Karabtchevsky keeps up the momentum and allows telling details and timbres to emerge from the mix. As for the sound it’s very good, with no hint of fierceness in the treble or diffuseness in the bass.
Once again it’s the Lento that stands out, with poised playing and lovely sonorities. Despite the vast forces Villa-Lobos never overplays his hand, although some may feel he doesn’t hold the best cards here. For all its felicities this movement outstays its welcome, but the Scherzo comes to the rescue with feisty and original writing. That said it’s also a tad prolix, and the closing Allegro strikes me as somewhat opaque. Not Villa-Lobos at his most inventive perhaps, but there’s no doubt this conductor, band and recording team give their all to these symphonies.
Musically uneven but still worth hearing; augurs well for the rest of this cycle.
Dan Morgan

Musically uneven but still worth hearing; augurs well for the rest of this cycle. 

see also review by Nick Barnard