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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Complete Violin Sonatas
Violin Sonata (Fantasia) No.1 ‘Désésperance’ (1912) [9:25]
Violin Sonata (Fantasia) No.2 (1914) [23:18]
Violin Sonata No.3 (1920) [20:56]
Emmanuele Baldini (violin)
Pablo Rossi (piano)
rec. 7-8 January 2020, Westchester Studios, New York
NAXOS 8.574310 [53:50]

All of Villa-Lobos’ three violin sonatas provide engaging and enjoyable listening, whether that be in the almost Petrarchan ‘sweet sorrow’ of the single-movement first sonata punctuated (as in all the best sonnet sequences) by passages of drama; or in the second sonata, which abounds in ideas and treats a wider range of emotions (not least in the central movement, marked ‘Largo – Moderato’); the allegro which closes the work also contains more than a few delights. The third sonata engages the listener with the ghostly scherzo of its second movement and the sophisticated, technically demanding writing for both instruments. All were written between 1912 and 1920 (i.e. while the composer was between 25 and 33). But in addition to the intrinsic interest of these sonatas, they belong to an important phase in Villa-Lobos’ development as a composer, the last of them being written just before Villa-Lobos faced an important choice.

To understand how and why, it is necessary to backtrack a little. Born in Rio de Janeiro, the young Villa-Lobos had no formal musical education. His first music lessons came from his librarian father Raul, a dilettante of the arts and an enthusiastic amateur musician, who taught his son the cello and introduced him to the music of, amongst others, Puccini and Wagner. Raul, however, died when the future composer was only eleven. His mother, Noêmia, saw no reason to find a way of continuing young Heitor’s musical education and was, in any case, probably too short of money to pay for such training.

The boy continued, however, to be fascinated by music and taught himself the basics of the guitar. At the age of 16 (c.1903) he ran away from home and travelled around Brazil with several different music ensembles, playing popular Brazilian music. When he returned to Rio a few years later, his skills as a cellist were sufficient for him to get work as an orchestral musician; he also supported himself by playing his cello in clubs and restaurants, as well as accompanying silent movies in Rio’s cinemas. When he began to compose, he was influenced both by the folk music and popular music of Brazil, such as he had heard and played in his years away from Rio, and by some of the European music he played as an orchestral cellist – by the work of such as Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Wagner, Franck and others. Soon he was exposed to more modern, post-Romantic music too. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe visited Rio in 1913, when their repertoire included L’Après-midi d’un faune, and again in 1917, when they presented performances of Feux d’artifice, The Firebird and Petroushka. In the words of the Brazilian musicologist Lisa M. Peppercorn (‘Foreign Influences in Villa-Lobos’s Music’, Ibero-amerikanisches Archiv, 3:1, 1977, pp.37-51) “This music definitely opened an entirely new sphere of sound combinations, textures, forms and rhythms to Villa-Lobos; musically speaking, it was a complete novelty” (p.40). According to some sources, Villa-Lobos was a member of the orchestra in 1917 and so would have learned this music ‘from the inside’. Alongside these purely musical experiences, Villa-Lobos’s involvement in the musical life of Rio led to a number of encounters that were very valuable for him, as with Darius Milhaud who was in Rio as the secretary of the major poet Paul Claudel, during his time (1917-18) as French ministre plénipotentiaire in Rio; Villa-Lobos also met, and became friendly with, the pianist Arthur Rubenstein.

If one surveys the compositions which the always prolific Villa-Lobos wrote during the 1910s they fall, for the most part, into two distinct groups. One group is made up of works predominantly written in European forms and idioms – such as these sonatas, the Tchaikovsky-influenced Cello Concerto of 1915, or the body of work he wrote for cello and piano between 1913 and 1917 – these “ten compositions … show a complete absence of elements of Brazilian folklore, and [are] highly influenced by the aesthetics of European composers in vogue at the time in Brazil” (M.A. Ramos Zaparolli, The Early Compositions for Cello and Piano by Heitor Villa-Lobos, D. Mus. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2019, p.1). Much the same could be said of the three piano trios Villa-Lobos wrote in this decade (in 1911, 1915 and 1918). But a second group of works, written at much the same time were, as their very titles make clear, thoroughly engaged with Brazilian subjects and made much use of Brazilian musical tropes, e.g. Suite populaire brésilienne (1908-12), Danças caractéristicas africanas (1914-15), Tédio de Alvorado (1916Amazonas (1917), Saci pererê (1917), Uirapura (1917) and Historias da carochinha (1919). On the whole, as his two sorts of titles suggest, Villa Lobos was, during the 1910s, largely keeping his ‘European’ and his ‘Brazilian’ idioms sharply apart. There were, of course, exceptions, as in the first of his string quartets (of which he was eventually to write 17). The last of the six movements which make up his first quartet (written in 1915) is marked Saltando como un saci pereré (jumping like a saci). The reference here is to a figure from Brazilian folklore – the saci pereré , a one-legged boy (or sometimes a one-legged old man) with very black skin, a mischief-maker who usually wears a red hood, smokes a pipe, and gets around by hopping on his single foot.

Works such as these violin sonatas, the pieces for cello and piano and the three piano trios suggest that in this decade Villa-Lobos was keen to ‘prove’ (to others, and perhaps even more to himself) that he could write successfully in these respected genres of European chamber music – and that he could, in doing so, make use of the example provided by a ‘modern’ figure such as Debussy. Villa-Lobos was, consequently, thought of in Brazil as a ‘modern’ composer – an epithet which in this context of time and place essentially meant ‘working in the latest European manner’. As such, he and his music, were represented at the ‘São Paolo Semana de Arte Moderna’ held in February 1922 (São Paolo was a much more European-facing city than Rio, and it was towards Paris, in particular, that it looked), an event which came to be regarded as of major importance in the cultural history of Brazil. The ‘Europeanisation’ of the composer must have seemed set to gather further momentum when a grant from the Brazilian government enabled to make a year-long trip to Paris (1923-24). He and his music met with some success and he made a number of friends in the Parisian musical world. Soon he was able to make a second, longer visit to the French capital (from early 1927 to the summer of 1930) funded this time by two Brazilian industrialists and philanthropists, the brothers Arnaldo and Carlos Guinle (apparently acting on the recommendation of Arthur Rubenstein). Through these periods in Paris Villa-Lobos was, naturally, able to become more familiar with the music of Stravinsky and others; his acquaintances in the French capital included Varèse and Stokowski (later to conduct works by Villa-Lobos). But an even more powerful impression that his time in Paris made on Villa-Lobos was that it was precisely the ‘Brazilian’ dimension in his music that was most popular, not the skill with which he could handle European forms and idioms. He seems to have drawn the conclusion that if he was to make an international reputation as a composer (he was never short of either ambition or self-confidence) it would happen, not through the forgetting of his Brazilian roots but through the embracing of them, by becoming a Brazilian composer, albeit one whose music also drew on his knowledge of European music, including that of Haydn and Bach, as well as Stravinsky and Debussy.

It was while in Paris that Villa-Lobos began work on the extensive series of works to which he gave the generic title of Chôros – the term choro, was normally used to refer to the music played by groups of Brazilian street musicians (though Villa-Lobos sought a broader synthesis of pan-Brazilian musical traditions than such street musicians attempted). Relatedly, it was soon after his return from his second spell in Paris that Villa-Lobos wrote the first and second of the works to which he gave the title Bachianas Brasileras – in which the noun and the adjective combine to declare the composer’s refusal to see the two dimensions of his sensibility as mutually exclusive. In another way, too, Villa-Lobos’s titles are revealing: between 1910 and 1920 Villa-Lobos wrote/published these three violin sonatas, plus two cello sonatas (1915 and 1915/16); so far as I can see (given the huge number of Villa-Lobos’s compositions, it is impossible to be certain about such matters without undertaking a disproportionate amount of research) Villa-Lobos never again used the word ‘sonata’ to designate even a single composition after he returned to Brazil following his second spell in Paris.

Villa-Lobos’s movement towards a heavily predominant emphasis on his Brazilian musical heritage was given additional momentum when in February 1932 he was appointed Head of SEMA (Superintendencia de Educação Musical e Artística do Departemento de Educação), under the government of Getúlio Vergas, following the Revolution of 1930, a government with a strong nationalist dimension. In musical terms, at least, Villa-Lobos was very much in sympathy with this new government and, in this new post he drew up a wide-ranging curriculum based on the traditions and principles of Brazil’s diverse musical culture, for use across the country’s educational system.
This discussion of the development of Villa-Lobos as a composer, undertaken in an attempt to show where these three interesting sonatas belong in his compositional journey, has necessarily had to be very selective. But it does, I hope, make it clear that his violin sonatas were amongst the last works (save for some of his later string quartets) in which Villa-Lobos presented himself as an ‘international’ composer – in the sense of being a non-European who wrote in the tradition inherited from Europe – or should one say ‘imposed’ by European colonization and its after-effects? As such, these pieces suggest that the composer could have achieved a good deal if he had chosen to continue along that path. But I suspect that most would not choose to swap the ‘promise’ contained in Villa-Lobos’s work of the period 1910-20 for the abundance of explicitly ‘Brazilian’ music he actually went on to produce. That is certainly my feeling.
Although Villa-Lobos was not aware of it at the time of composing them, these sonatas were (with, again, the exception of some of his later string quartets and his often Rachmaninov-influenced piano concertos) amongst the last essentially ‘European’ works that he was to write. Hearing the three sonatas together makes one realize how rapidly Villa-Lobos’ sophistication and inventive command of this particular instrumental combination was developing. Appreciation of such issues is greatly facilitated by these top-class performances by the Italian violinist Emmanuele Baldini and the Brazilian pianist Paolo Rossi. Both are impressive musicians, as evidenced, for example, by the way Baldini sustains and develops the dominant violin part in Sonata No.1, always expressive without ever becoming excessively sentimental, or the well-judged power with which Rossi plays the piano part in the last movement of the second sonata. Their ensemble work is excellent too – not least in the closing movement of the third sonata, especially in the rapid passages towards its close. These are played with attractive effervescence without at any time sounding rushed or superficial. Indeed, I find the instrumental relationship between Baldini and Rossi eminently satisfactory throughout these works. They are well-served by a thoroughly satisfactory recorded sound. One of the incidental fascinations of hearing Villa-Lobos’ Violin Sonatas in sequence is to observe how much – and how quickly – the composer’s writing for the piano improved in these years (his 1913 marriage to the pianist Lucilía Guimãres must have played an important role here). I am familiar with only one other complete recording of these sonatas – that by violinist Jenny Abel and pianist Roberto Szidon (Brilliant Classics 9051, recorded in 1982). Though that is by no means a bad recording, I find this new release from Naxos preferable in almost every respect.
Glyn Pursglove

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