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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No. 10, Ameríndia (1954)
Leonardo Neiva (baritone); Saulo Javan (bass)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. Sala São Paulo, 2-16 February 2013
Latin, Portuguese, Tupi sung texts and translations in booklet and also accessible here.
NAXOS 8.573243 [60:47]

Composed in 1954 for the 400th anniversary of the founding of São Paulo, Ameríndia is the composer’s largest symphony. It is really a hybrid symphony and oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Right from the very opening bars it is obviously the work of Villa-Lobos. The Little Train of the Caipira, Modinha and Uirapuru all immediately spring to mind from those late 1950s Everest LPs recorded by Stokowski and Goossens. Unfortunately, I don’t recall any of this music with a great deal of pleasure. I was eager to find out whether or not this symphony would change my mind. The Tenth symphony shares the same fingerprints as these three pieces and there’s no doubting that Villa-Lobos has his own sound-world. Some will be drawn into it; others will resist.

The first movement is purely orchestral and it is heavily scored, romantic in nature and could easily be mistaken for a film score. It’s certainly very lush and dramatic even if the material itself isn’t particularly memorable. The second movement is a lament featuring a wordless chorus. Again, Hollywood isn’t too far away. The third movement sets off as a vigorous scherzo the first section of which could easily have been modelled on Beethoven. This is satisfying writing but the level of interest soon dissipates on the reappearance of the chorus and baritone. Beethoven has now morphed into Orff and slushy romanticism returns with a vengeance. The fourth movement The Voice of the Earth runs for over 25 minutes and the music meanders along in its own way. Lush sonorities and a clever use of the orchestra fail to be convincing because, again, the material isn’t of the highest order and the structure isn’t tight enough. It’s a long 25 minutes. The finale brings us more of the same and ends in a triumphant blaze of sound.

To summarize, what we have here is a massive “Technicolor” work that requires huge orchestral forces, a large choir and a lot of stamina. It’s a Brazilian Ben-Hur. It must be a tiring slog for the performers to get through this and their efforts are very creditable. There isn’t enough contrast to hold the listener’s attention and it’s only the composer’s interesting use of the orchestra that saves the day. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra is fully committed and Isaac Karabtchevsky holds the complex writing together most admirably. The recording is spectacular but lacks just a bit of air around it.

I find it hard to be enthusiastic about this Naxos issue. I personally find the music to be overblown, garish and corny. Ultimately, it’s a most unconvincing work sounding for all the world like a composer trying too hard to be dramatic and imposing. The end-result is a brilliantly orchestrated, exuberant and spectacular sixty minutes that doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s like eating a massive feast that doesn’t taste of anything. I feel the same way about the music of Khachaturian, Lloyd and Hovhaness so if you like any or all of these composers you will almost certainly get some pleasure from this disc. I didn’t really enjoy it.

By the way, in this recording the solo tenor part is taken by the tenor section of the choir.

John Whitmore


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