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Alberto NEPOMUCENO (1864–1920)
O Garatuja: Prelude (1904) [9:12]
Série brasileira (Brazilian Suite) (1897) [24:52]
Symphony in G Minor (1893) [33:43]
Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra/Fabio Mechetti
rec. 2018, Sala Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
NAXOS 8.574067 [67:47]

Think Brazil and classical music and Villa-Lobos comes to mind. There are others, but if we discount nationalist display connections - at the level of Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsodies - they’re precious few. Otherwise a little handful have been championed by BIS and Chandos. Naxos, the Minas Gerais Philharmonic, Fabio Mechetti and the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs now usher in a collection by Alberto Nepomuceno. I hope this is not the last such. I had to look it up, but Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais is 200 km north of Rio de Janeiro and maybe 400 km south-east of Brasilia.

I knew Nepomuceno as a name, but only from a shabby and beat-up copy of Nicolas Slonimsky's book on Latin American Music (1945). This disc has clothed the name in something to which we can listen and with which we can familiarise ourselves.

Nepomuceno’s Prelude to O Garatuja opens a lyric drama for the opera-house. This enjoyable spumante prosecco overture is a substantial piece. It bubbles, barks, struts, serenades and effervesces in a manner related to Chabrier's España. The composer died in Rio de Janeiro a few days after Richard Strauss had conducted this Prelude in Rio. He wrote other operas including Abul (1905), Artemis (1898) and Electra (1894). Will we ever hear them, I wonder?

The four-part Serie Brasileira or Brazilian Suite dates from his seven years of studies in Europe, specifically in Berlin with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Much of Dawn at the Mountains is a landscape gently stirred by harp and strings, sea breezes and birdsong. It reminded me of Balakirev’s Zelazowa Wola - a calm orchestral reminiscence of Chopin’s birthplace. Then comes a less sleepy movement called Intermedio with a Maxixe under-pulse. Charm and cheek are the order of the day as well as something of the spirit of the O Garatuja prelude. The notes by Paulo Sérgio Malheiros dos Santos and Gustavo de Sá (in English translation) tell us that it is an orchestration of a movement from the composer's Third String Quartet. One can believe that the sly yet gentle Napping in a Hammock (III) with its regular sleepy rhythm captures the experience, although the sleeper seems to be troubled by a persistent mosquito. It's a beguiling and captivating piece. The suite concludes with a carnival Batuque. This should speak to those who enjoy the Massenet suites and the Latino-inflected works by Milhaud. It's all done with a feathery air-brush of a hand - Nepomuceno does not weigh down the textures even if he can be given to obstreperous climaxes.

The four-movement Symphony is one of the earliest Brazilian symphonies and, it seems, is in the active repertoire of Brazilian orchestras. Its Allegro Con Enthusiasmo has a Tchaikovskian yearning about it but is not free from the Brazilian nationalist touches we have come to know from the other two works on this CD. The calming and dreamy Andante (II) might have escaped from a suite by Tchaikovsky or Arensky. The upbeat scherzo has elements of both Glazunov and Mendelssohn but also a brusque manner. The Finale has the exultant bustle of a Schumann symphony.

The liner essay hits the right note except that it tells us little of what else Nepomuceno wrote. They appear in a skilled and fluent translation by Stela Brandão.

Incidentally, if you would like to explore South American music then quite apart from those BIS Guarneri CDs, one of the two Chandos collections is on sale from the Chandos website; well worth its very modest asking price.

Only in relation to the last ounce of sumptuous string tone is there any cause to crib. Otherwise this orchestra give the music its full measure of stir and soul and the Naxos engineers are allies in presenting this valuable music otherwise unheard in Europe.

Rob Barnett

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