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. Sala São Paulo, Brazil 21 February – 5 March 2011
NAXOS 8.573043 [68:18]
By pure chance the previous disc I happened to review was of music by Josef Suk. I’m not sure I can think of two composers active at the same time who had quite such contrasting approaches to the mechanics of composition. Suk produced a relatively small catalogue of work with each piece carefully considered and revised. Villa-Lobos was nothing if not profligate producing a vast amount of music of – it has to be – greatly varying quality. Clearly he considered the term ‘symphony’ to still have relevance and act as a vehicle for a composer’s most significant utterances. In 1958 he gave a lecture where he said “[a symphony] is music for the music. Superior, intellectual music, not a tune to be whistled”. This might come as something of a disappointment for those hoping that the Villa-Lobos symphonies will be filled with the colour and appeal of many of the Chôros and Bachianas Brasileiras. His symphonies 1-4 were written before 1920, symphony 5 has been lost whilst Symphony No.6 “On the outline of the mountains of Brazil” recorded here is regarded as the start of mature symphonic style which he composed nearly a quarter of a century after his No.4. The title might imply some kind of programmatic representation of Brazilian topography. Not at all; in fact it is an example of a technique Villa-Lobos developed called “millimeterization”. This was a process he developed to create a melody from an image. Here I quote from the liner; “on a piece of transparent graph paper he would allocate the vertical lines to the pitches and the horizontal lines to the durations; this transparency would be superimposed onto a photograph whose main points would determine the melodic contour. A skilled teacher could then harmonize the often unusual tune thus obtained.” Although primarily a teaching tool Villa-Lobos used it twice in concert works – the symphony under consideration and the piano work New York Skyline of 1939. Apparently the motifs in the symphony were derived from photographs of the Serra dos Órgãos and the hills around Rio de Janeiro. The exact pictures used are unknown but in a nice touch the back and front cover of the booklet reproduce similar images.
So how does all of the above theory translate into music? Well in a pretty knotty way really. Both works here are written in conventional four movement format placing the slow movement second. Formally this slow section dominates – looming mountain-like over the other three movements at nearly double their length. According to liner writer Fábio Zanon this is the most often played of the cycle because of its “unusual thematic inspiration and comparative lightness”. Certainly the excellent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra make light work of the awkward melodic and rhythmic lines – I have no idea how common these works are in their concert repertoire but they do not sound at all strained by the demands they make. The orchestra came to international prominence with their recordings of the more overtly nationalistic/folkloristic music of Villa-Lobos (review) and Guarnieri (review review review) on BIS in particular. The good impression made there continues here and the recording produced, engineered and edited by Ulrich Schneider is very good too if lacking the remarkable glamour of the BIS efforts. Conversely, it would be hard to say that there are innately Brazilian fingerprints in the music which gives the ‘home’ players an intuitive edge. Naxos do not have this field to themselves – CPO have already produced a complete cycle of the symphonies from the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl St. Clair (review review review review).
In the 6th Symphony the São Paulo strings sound more secure and as one and there are striking time differences with St. Clair one minute faster in the opening movement and a huge two and a half minutes quicker in the following Lento. The Naxos recordings are described as being of the “revised scores” but I have no idea if that implies any structural alteration to original versions. I prefer Karabtchevsky’s slow movement certainly – he finds far greater mystery and is helped by a more natural and atmospheric recording together with playing (and time!) that allows a freer, more improvisatory feel. Also, and given my earlier comment that this is not intended as programme music, the slower speed does allow the music to take on an epic craggy quality that does seem, well…. mountainous. The third movement starts off at a rollicking pace that belies its Allegretto marking but quickly gets side-tracked into a more rhetorical passage – Zanon sees this as the highlight of the work which I, on relatively little knowledge don’t. In part this is because I feel Villa-Lobos’ tendency to over-orchestrate can make for passages where there is so much musical material played by so many instruments that the result is clogged and heavy even in a performance as well achieved and poised as this. The opening of the finale is another example of this with hectic inner passage work from the strings competing with heroic driving brass motifs [all played with commendable panache by the Brazilian players]. My problem here is that it feels like music gathering itself to make a major statement that never quite arrives, Villa-Lobos has another disconcerting habit of flicking from passages of intense drama to quiet reflection with little or no preparation and then back again. It does emphasise the dramatic nature of the work although I found the sudden major key ending as abrupt as it felt contrived. This is a work I need to get to know much better – and my feeling is this might well be the version to be my guide.
Many of the same feelings remain for the seventh symphony written just a year later. Here Villa-Lobos uses an even bigger orchestra with doubled or tripled wind and brass, very extended percussion, piano, two harps and a Hammond Novachord (an early synthesizer whose presence is not overly obvious). The premiere was given by the London Symphony Orchestra with what Zanon describes as a “somewhat mystifying description calling this symphony Odyssey of Peace with the four movements entitled Prologue-Contrasts-Tragedy-Epilogue”. Zanon fails to find any clear correspondence within the music to these titles and indeed they do not appear in the manuscript score. Actually I probably prefer this to the earlier work – it is more uncompromisingly modernistic and muscular and while still lacking anything overtly Brazilian has a riot of jagged rhythms and cross-cutting harmonies that makes for quite a rollercoaster of a musical ride. At over fourteen minutes the Lento that is placed second is a study in languorous woodwind melodies of considerable length and sinuous appeal – gorgeous bassoon and clarinet work here especially – over a busy but discreet bed of string filigree writing. The roles are then reversed with slow moving but widely ranging unison string lines backed with accompanying woodwind writing. The music is melodic but these are not melodies that it is easy to assimilate on a couple of hearings. Again credit to the performance here that takes technically demanding music and gives it an intensity, coherence and logic that escaped me when listening to the CPO versions – all in all a very impressive movement.
The following scherzo sounds like a nightmare to play – busy and awkward with a continuous stream of string writing buzzing away in the background. It has the feel of a busy cityscape with numerous groups going frantically about their work creating a collective sense of intent and energy although with each element independent of the others. The finale feels like the weakest movement of the symphony simply because it does not build on that which has gone before being more of a continuation/ expansion on the mood of the third movement scherzo with similar use of primary [foreground] and secondary [background] material. That being the case it is the only part of the work which seems to drag with passages which feel that they have been written to a formula rather than inspiration. Again the abrupt transitions from fast to slow material lack a logic that is immediately perceivable – again greater familiarity will help I am sure but my instinct is that this is not as convincing in its construction as other parts of the work. The closing pages have a bright-eyed energy quite at odds with the serious complexities that come before and again the ending proper is startling in its suddenness. For a collector new to Villa-Lobos few would recommend exploring the symphonies before the Chôros and Bachianas Brasileiras since they seem to find a more interesting and convincing balance between the individual and the traditional. I continue to have nothing but praise for the performance and certainly this augurs very well for the proposed complete cycle on Naxos.
Nick Barnard
Augurs very well for the proposed complete cycle on Naxos.