Villa-Lobos: Ascenção

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2, Op.160 (Ascenção)
New York Skyline Melody

Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Carl St. Clair

Recorded in the Stadthalle, Sindelfingen on 16-19 February 1998 [Symphony] and 17-18 April 2000

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: CPO 999 785-2
Duration: 54 minutes

A profusion of musical ideas always seems to inform Heitor Villa-Lobos’s music; sometimes the effect can be that of rambling. This is less apparent in Symphony No.2, a glorious piece that is outgoing and vividly colourful, a work of sweeping melodies and jaunty syncopation, certainly suggestive of the composer’s South American background. (He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887 and died there in 1959.)

Although seemingly written in 1917, the completion of this symphony may not have occurred until the early 1940s when the composer conducted it in Rio de Janeiro (in 1944): hence the ‘high’ opus number (in 1917 his output was relatively small). It’s a hugely attractive work full of Technicolor scoring and communicative melodies; the engaged listener will be attracted to working out Villa-Lobos’s use of form, especially in the expansive (here 18-minute) first movement; there is much to entrance, but tracing the exposition-development-recapitulation is less easy as is separating indigenous material from what one perceives as a complex and wholly personal response to musical ‘building blocks’. It seems that for Villa-Lobos writing music was the most natural thing in the world: he just did it, and maybe not with the most configured and thought-through approach to structure. As the climactic final bars of the first movement are reached, one senses though that the composer has known all along where he is going; it’s up to us to adjust to him and not wave a musical text-book in his face.

In a work that is this ‘generous’ to its listeners, such ‘doubts’ as to construction may not matter too much – for the actual material compels attention, and so does Villa-Lobos’s masterly handling of a large orchestra. After the grandeur of the first movement, the scherzo brings a welcome lightness of touch, gracefully dancing, Villa-Lobos’s ideas, once again, tripping over each other, but not in an uncoordinated way. The Andante moderato that follows is a tenderly expressive movement with much fine feeling shared, and shaded with ‘popular’ harmonies and scored with a clarity that leaves no doubt that Villa-Lobos could refine his work amidst the grand gestures.

The finale of this 50-minute symphony – ‘Ascenção’ translates as Ascension – is a mix of striving, reflection and resolution and seems somewhat discursive, not least during an extended solo for bass clarinet (the player here deserves a credit, so too the violinist and flautist later on). This last movement moves all too easily to final triumph, yet the journey has been a worthwhile one, and is certainly one to undertake again. This excellent, and very well recorded, performance is an excellent point of departure; a shame to be denied it for near on nine years! (This review written and posted on 2 March 2007.)

One also wonders why New York Skyline Melody was recorded over two days. This three-minute piece (1939) was originally for piano and then orchestrated; it’s rather sinister and nocturnal (a memory, too, for Villa-Lobos composed it in Rio), a Gershwin-esque tapestry that is bluesy and slinky and which completes a release of very engaging music.

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