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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Symphony No. 8 (1950) [24:16]
Symphony No. 9 (1952) [21:54]
Symphony No. 11 (1955) [27:33]
So Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. Sala So Paulo, Brazil, 2015/16. DDD
NAXOS 8.573777 [73:43]

Villa-Lobos was prodigiously productive. The liner-note points out that after the Second World War he tended to travel between Paris and various bases in the USA. This seems to have been no obstacle to his industrious commitment. We are familiar with his Paris Path-EMI recordings from the 1950s but those sessions swerved around his symphonies apart from the Fourth. There's a long list of works that belong to his sojourns in the USA: symphonies 8-9, 11-12, Chros 12, the ballet Emperor Jones, the Lorca opera Yerma (also set by Denis ApIvor) and the musical Magdalena recorded by Sony. This disc gathers in three 'American' symphonies, all from the 1950s - the composer's final decade. None of them are extended works - each runs to less than half an hour and all are in four movements.

Symphony No. 8 comes from the beginning of the decade. Its yawning and roaring energy can be felt even in the second movement - a Lento assai which has the gargantuan Bachian 'reach' of a Stokowski arrangement, if not the glare and glitter. The first movement of this work, premiered in 1955 at Philadelphia and dedicated to music writer Olin Downes, has an epic stride and a slowly unfolding 'rush' contrasting with sky-high Honegger-like and sweetly surging strings. The busy-busy Allegretto scherzando is alive with positive energy and has some delightful writing for brass. The tumbling onrush of the Allegretto giusto is sustained across just over six minutes. Its mix of flightiness and 'big boots' suggests a mediation between Elgar's ‘Enigma’ Variations and the symphonies of Laszlo Lajtha.

The Ninth Symphony confounds expectations around the number Nine by extending to only 22 minutes. It carries a dedication to the composer's partner, Mindinha. The premiere again went to the Fabulous Philadelphians, this time conducted by Ormandy.

There's a professionally thoughtful, long silence separating the end of the Eighth from the start of the Ninth; likewise between Nine and Eleven: longer than the gaps between movements. It's a good sign and not to be taken for granted. The first movement of the Ninth is a far from unclouded Allegro - rocked with stormy conflict. This leads to a gloomy yet smoothly meditative Adagio which yet has the stamina to swing up to what feel like serene heights. A grotesquely scurrying Scherzo draws on masses of uplift and power - an example of Villa-Lobos’s trademark DNA. The finale starts with a shadow of Stravinsky's Pulcinella. This soon settles back into billowing contours, great updrafts of sanguine energy and a rushing pay-off wrapped in high summer.

The Symphony No. 11 was commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The dedication here is to its conductor Serge Koussevitzky. In fact, the premiere was presided over by Charles Munch. The symphony’s opening Allegro moderato thunders and sings with mercurially rapid mood-changes. It's followed by a warm Adagio where the mood slips between sultry warmth and serenity. A skipping and chuckling little Scherzo (2:53) ripples away left and right with bright and happy instrumental solos.

Few of the 12 movements across the three symphonies escape the long reach of Villa-Lobos's folk exotic influences. They might be slightly blunted or filtered but the voices for which he became famous in the 1920s and 1930s can still be discerned. In the Molto allegro finale of No. 9 rumbling and slip-sliding ideas look back to the composer's highly coloured Brazilian roots. They remain part of his make-up and lend the music a grand vigour and kick.

The thoughtful and fairly extended liner-note is by Fabio Zanon and is in a translation into English by Lisa Shaw. Zanon, a Brazilian guitarist, is the author of a Villa-Lobos study dating from 2009.

This Naxos cycle with Karabtchevsky and the So Paulo Symphony Orchestra presents the symphonies in editions revised and corrected by the performers. From that point of view they may have the edge on the CPO cycle (7 CDs: 777 516-2) also with a single orchestra (SWRSO) and conductor Carl St Clair.

The music is performed here with a freshness nourished by long and sensibly separated recording sessions. The sound benefits from a resonant concert space, one which the SPSO and Karabatchevsky must know intimately.

We can look forward to the remaining symphonies from these artists and this source: still to come from Naxos are symphonies 1-2. It is understood that No. 5 A Paz is still untraced. Not slated for recording and probably a long and speculative way off - if ever - are a number of other lost symphonic scores including at least one tone poem and a cantata, Jesus. I seem to remember also reading about two big missing works from the late 1920s: Chros 13 for two orchestras and band and Chros 14 for orchestra, band and chorus. These are in the realm of intriguing possibilities. We can hope.

Rob Barnett



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