Sonata Brasileira
André MEHMARI (b. 1977)
Piano Sonata in A [16:58]
Carmargo GUARNIERI (1907-1993)

Piano Sonata [17:40]
Marcelo AMAZONAS (b. 1973)
Piano Sonatina (Hommage ŕ Francis Poulenc) [10:25]
Edmundo VILLANI-CÔRTES (b. 1930)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C [10:08]
Antonio Vaz Lemes (piano)
rec. 3-6 February 2012, Eglise Notre Dame de Bon Secours, Paris
Booklet notes in English, French and German
ODRADEK ODRCD332 [58:03]

There are not only four modern-ish Brazilian piano sonatas to excite interest in this disc, but a few extra-musical matters as well. Several Odradek releases have already been reviewed on this site, but it’s worth repeating that the label is a relatively new not-for-profit, artist-controlled cooperative where all net proceeds - after production and distribution costs have been covered - go to the artists themselves. Another notable feature of Odradek’s business model for the online world is its use of Creative Commons for copyright control, which enables a range of different protections. On a more frivolous note, I couldn’t help but notice the cover design, and reflect on how artists are portrayed according to musical genre; the classical crowd usually unpretentious and smiling, and the rock fraternity, say, more often in sullen and studied posture. Things can be different, though, and for this Antonio Vaz Lemes debut CD, we have an artist portrait with gelled-up hair of the “I’ll have one of those” variety you’ll see on a barbershop wall - and, as my wife noted, those bedroom eyes! Needless to say, there’s much, much more to Vaz Lemes than this – not least, he’s quite some pianist.

The earliest work here is the 1972 Sonata by Camargo Guarnieri, described in the liner notes as foregoing the composer’s usual commitment to national styles, being essentially an abstract piece. That may well be the case, but the Brazilian flavour is there in its bristling energy and emotional candour. Tonally and stylistically, the work is very much of its time, and I can almost see the 1970s academic music establishment peering over Guarnieri’s shoulder as he writes! Nonetheless, its strictures are more than matched by its unfailing invention and, at times, rhapsodic fervour. Vaz Lemes leaves us in no doubt of his regard for the Sonata, with playing of great clarity, power and finesse. His sheer gusto sweeps us through the torrid passages of sometimes aggressive dissonance, and then tantalises us with the gentler filigree of the sonata’s central A margurado movement. Likewise the 1994 Sonata of Edmundo Villani-Côrtes draws pianism of the same conviction and sensibility, to the extreme satisfaction of the composer, we’re told, when he heard this Vaz Lemes recording. The work is less substantial, gentler, and freer in form than Guarnieri’s, with influences of Brazilian urban popular music. Following two lyrical, song-like movements - the first suggesting Villa-Lobos, the second Satie - a short helter-skelter Presto concludes the work, rather reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. If it struck me as a less rewarding work, I nevertheless found it wholly charming.

The remaining Sonata and Sonatina were both completed in 2011, and also have in common that their composers are better known as jazz musicians. Each work has a different dedicatee, though, and a separate ‘personality’ develops from there as much as from the different compositional styles of their creators. Marcelo Amazonas’ Hommage ŕ Francis Poulenc is what it says, avoiding traditional references to Brazilian music, much like the earlier Guarnieri sonata. Amazonas’ nod to Poulenc, exploring gestures of nineteenth and twentieth century piano music, is an apt reflection of the French master’s aesthetic, with its subtle melodies, wit and wonderful quirkiness. I wouldn’t be saying this if Vaz Lemes wasn’t up to the task, which he certainly is, even if from 1:15 to 1:30 in the Rápido final movement his technique sounds fully taxed by the fearsome rhythmic demands. For all its gentle playfulness, this piece at times reaches the extremes of the piano’s tessitura. Albeit brief, it’s an impressive, and greatly heartening, addition to this century’s piano literature.

Perhaps even more impressive is the sonata written for Vaz Lemes himself by André Mehmari. This is modern composition in its most liberated form, not hidebound by anything or anybody. Brazilian it certainly is, but with just about everything else thrown in – tonally, melodically, rhythmically, and stylistically – yet subtly and coherently integrated into music of great narrative power. The kaleidoscopic first movement has hints of Prokofiev, sonorities ŕ la Liszt, rhythms of the chorinho, and much more. It’s followed by the slow-burn, “how’s it going to end?” magnetism of the second and final movement, its Coral e Riffs title an implied reference to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. Vaz Lemes, surely no better champion for this work, brings not only authority but a proselytising zeal to his already formidable pianism. As the opening work on this CD, it left me tingling for more, and if not all else that followed quite matched it, the urge to listen on meant each of these fine sonatas, and Vaz Lemes’ ardent advocacy of them, was fully appreciated.

The recording places the piano very realistically at the boundary between the listening area and a quite voluminous space behind it, which suits the expansive nature of this music. It completes what is a most impressive debut album for Antonio Vaz Lemes, showcasing these four splendid and life-affirming piano sonatas from Brazil.

Des Hutchinson

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