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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]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 2015/16. DDD
NAXOS 8.573777 [73:43]

Having heard, and not particularly enjoyed, the composer’s 10th Symphony in a recording by the orchestra and conductor featured on this disc (Naxos 8.573243) I approached this CD of symphonies 8.9 and 11 with somewhat limited expectations. Putting my cards on the table straight away I have always found the music of Villa-Lobos to be overblown, garish and corny. I feel the same way about Khachaturian, Lloyd and Hovhaness. However, it’s important to judge this particular recording on its own merits and try to be as objective as possible.

The 3 symphonies featured here all come from the 1950s, towards the end of the composer’s life. No. 8 was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the composer. It starts with a Pines of Rome bustle and the main theme sounds like a curious distortion of the opening horn tune from Schubert’s 9th and the music is full of momentum and drive. The slow movement is expressive, bitter sweet and structurally satisfying with intricate counterpoint and a great central climax. The Allegretto scherzando is mercurial, with exotic orchestration and an underlying lyrical cello tune. The final Allegretto giusto is similarly mercurial with syncopated rhythms and what sound like fiendishly difficult woodwind parts. The Ninth Symphony also received its premiere in Philadelphia, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It is highly proficient in terms of its construction and orchestration but, like the 8th, the musical substance has little memorability. The first movement is a typical high octane Allegro followed by a lengthy Adagio that has great atmosphere and a meditative feeling of gloom and doom about it. The Scherzo is typical of the composer, from what I have heard of his work so far. It’s all hustle and bustle but frankly unmemorable. The final Allegro is neo-classical, runs for a sprawling 6 minutes and the main attraction is the expertise of the orchestration. It does have some Stravinskyan overtones but Stravinsky himself intensely disliked the music of Villa-Lobos. I’m afraid to say that I tend to agree with Stravinsky. Symphony No. 11 was commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky and first performed under the baton of Charles Munch. The opening Allegro moderato bursts into life with yet another bustle of notes followed by a singing, soaring melody on the strings. The Adagio is in turns sultry and gloomy and then we get another of those dancing scherzos, with hundreds of notes thrown into the mix. The final Molto allegro is another Stravinskian parody with the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony thrown in for good measure.

Karabtchevsky and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra play with virtuosity and dedication in a natural but resonant concert hall. The Naxos disc offers a generous playing time and for your money – courtesy of Villa-Lobos – you also get thousands of notes. The main issue I have is that despite the composer’s obvious expertise in committing the notes to paper the musical substance seems to be rather lacking. These symphonies are certainly less garish and Technicolor than the 10th but for this listener the experience was still hollow.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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