Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Uirapurú (1917) [18:11]
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 (orch. 1942) [20:35]
The Emperor Jones (1956) [22:26]
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner
rec. 26-28 May 1999 (Bachianas, Emperor), 7-8 August 2000 (Uirapurú), Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, Denmark
BRIDGE 9129 [61:36]
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 especially thrilling.
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 on.
A most rewarding issue, played with great conviction and style.
Dan Morgan

A most rewarding issue, played with great conviction and style. 

Masterwork Index: Bachianas Brasileiras

see also reviews by Hubert Culot and Jonathan Woolf