Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No. 10 Amerindia (1954) [76.42]
Leonardo Nelva (baritone), Saulo Javan (bass)
São Paolo Symphony Choir and Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. Sala São Paolo, Brazil, 2-16 February 2013
NAXOS 8.573243 [76.42]

Prospective buyers may well be surprised by this release, as I was. I already have a recording of this symphony from these same forces from a few years ago although I am not clear if it was ever commercially available; it may have derived from a broadcast. At first, indeed, I assumed it was a reissue or transcription of that performance; but no, what we have here is a newly revised edition of the score made by the São Paolo orchestra’s own publishing house in collaboration with the Academia Brasileira de Música. Whereas the earlier recording featured the tenor solo of Marcello Venucci in addition to the two lower male voices (otherwise the same singers), here the solitary line for tenor is given to the choral tenors. Although the score specifically states that the symphony is an “oratorio for tenor, baritone, bass, mixed chorus and orchestra” the substitution, which only affects one phrase, is hardly of significance. Since the scores of Villa-Lobos are notoriously prone to error — the composer hardly ever bothered to proof-read his scores before publication or performance — the need for a modern and critical edition is easily justified. Indeed the earlier recording by these forces no longer seems to be generally available, if indeed it ever was, and the only current listed competition comes from Carl St Clair as part of his complete Villa-Lobos cycle on CPO, with the Tenth no longer available separately. The original première recording issued on Koch in 2000 also appears to have disappeared from the catalogues, as has a 2004 Harmonia Mundi release with forces from Tenerife.

The fact that this Naxos release gives us the symphony in a properly corrected edition is in itself a major recommendation, although comparisons with the other performance from the same forces mentioned in the preceding paragraph shows no major differences. Maybe the earlier recording was drawn from the same edition. Apart from the St Clair disc I have not been able to compare it with the other recordings available at one time or another. The work itself is great fun, a sort of gargantuan Brazilian riposte to Mahler’s choral ‘symphony of a thousand’. Like that work and other gigantic symphonic effusions such as Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, it is never likely to become a standard repertory work, but Villa-Lobos throws all his, admittedly sometimes fallible, inspiration into the score. One might easily complain about the overtones of film music which sometimes make themselves felt, or about the reliance on sometimes over-obvious harmonic and thematic devices. However the sheer power of the composer’s exuberance and his clear enjoyment of his material have an infectious quality that never leaves the listener bored or uninterested.

Naxos, in association with Marco Polo where they have released the complete string quartets and a whole raft of other works, have done a great deal to expand our knowledge of the music of Villa-Lobos on disc. These same performers have already given us highly desirable versions of the Third and Fourth (8.573151), Sixth and Seventh; and Twelfth (8.573451) Symphonies. Also the São Paolo orchestra are fully the equal of St Clair’s Stuttgart radio forces on his earlier complete cycle (CPO 777 516-2) (omitting the lost Fifth). Naxos also, as usual, earn our gratitude by providing the sung text of the symphony in Tupi, Latin and Portuguese together with an English translation by Lisa Shaw. The words are hardly great literature, but they provide a framework for Villa-Lobos’s music which clearly inspired the composer; there are texts in all the movements except the first. The excellent booklet notes by Fábio Zanon make the observation that “the symphonies are the least-explored works in Villa-Lobos’s vast orchestral output” and one hopes that this Naxos series will be another step in their rehabilitation and re-discovery. One never knows, even the Fifth may re-emerge one day.

The symphony was originally written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Sao Paolo in 1552, but its first performance did not take place until five years later in Paris, when it seems to have been universally panned by uncomprehending critics. If the performance then was anything like the sometimes awful renditions of his works that Villa-Lobos conducted with French forces in recording sessions at that time, it is quite likely that the players should shoulder their share of the blame for that. Not that there are any complaints about the playing in this Naxos release, which is presumably intended to form part of a new complete cycle of the Villa-Lobos symphonies. The work itself certainly deserves an occasional outing. The recording quality leaves nothing to be desired.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Whitmore


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