Every now and then one comes across an unfamiliar and intriguing
disc that demands to be heard. This Villa-Lobos collection -
which includes the first CD recording of his last ballet The
Emperor Jones - is one of them. The presence of the fine
Odense orchestra - whose playing in Carl Nielsen’s Springtime
in Funen and Aladdin suite impressed me so - is an
added bonus. That recording, conducted by Tamás Vetö,
was originally released by Unicorn-Kanchana but it’s now
available as a terrific bargain on Regis;
there’s also another such Nielsen Regis
collection from the same forces. I digress; this Villa-Lobos
disc promises to be a real treat, even if it does include the
ubiquitous Bachianas Brasileiras rather than something
a little more adventurous.
Uirapurú, written to coincide with the visit of
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to Rio in 1917, takes its title
from a magical songbird hunted by the Amazon Indians. They are
none too pleased when an ugly Indian appears, playing a nose-flute.
They beat him senseless, and soon afterwards a beautiful maiden
comes in search of that elusive creature. She kills it with
her bow and arrow and it morphs into a handsome youth. Before
they can leave the rain forest the ugly Indian returns and slays
the young man, who is then transformed into a beautiful bird.
It’s certainly an evocative tale, for which Villa-Lobos
uses a conventional orchestra, harps, celesta, indigenous instruments
and a violinophone - a violin with a resonating horn attached.
Yes, the insistent, pounding rhythms of the piece are Stravinskian,
but there’s a freshness and individuality to the writing
- not to mention a powerful sense of drama - that’s most
compelling. The Venezuelan conductor Jan Wagner draws hot-blooded
playing from this northern band, who are very well recorded.
Despite the disc’s lack of cues the story is easy enough
to follow, the music’s rainbow plumage and climactic moments
Uirapurú is a great find, and a work I hope to
revisit often. Perhaps Gustavo Dudamel and his Bolivars can
be persuaded to record it at some point. As for the Bachianas
Brasileiras, written for piano between 1930 and 1945,
they too are an accomplished fusion of two traditions; in this
case Brazilian folk music and European Baroque. No. 4, orchestrated
in 1942, gets a warm, lyrical outing here; the Odense string
playing in the Preludio is wonderfully refined and, where necessary,
ardent. The ensuing Coral is similarly blessed, and Wagner shapes
the music persuasively. Moreover, rhythms are nicely judged
and the fine recording ensures telling details aren’t
subsumed in those very occasional tuttis.
Ubiquitous they may be, but Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas
Brasileiras seem eternally new and invigorating, not least
in this excellent performance. Ubiquitous isn’t a term
one could apply to his ballet The Emperor Jones, the
long-lost score of which was unearthed by Jan Wagner. Based
on Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name, it tells
the story of Rufus Jones, a black fugitive from a chain-gang
who’s shipwrecked on a Caribbean island. He then sets
himself up as both ruler and tyrant, terrorising its inhabitants
until his violent death by silver bullet. His actions are mirrored
in music of great originality and power, the Odense orchestra
joining in the inexorable moral slide with great enthusiasm.
Indeed, the ostinati-driven finale will take your breath away.
What a pity, though, that the disc isn’t cued; that said,
the liner-notes will give you a rough idea of what’s going
A most rewarding issue, played with great conviction and style.
see also reviews by Hubert
Culot and Jonathan
Masterwork Index: Bachianas