Villa-Lobos Symphonies 3 & 9 – CPO

0 of 5 stars

Ouverture de l’Homme Tel
Symphony No.3 (A Guerra)
Symphony No.9

SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart
Carl St.Clair

Recorded at Stadthalle Sindelfingen on March 19/20 1998 (Symphony 3), July 8-10 1999 (Symphony 9) and April 17/18 2000 (Ouverture)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: November 2002
CD No: CPO 999 712-2

Villa-Lobos is one of the 20th-century’s endangered composers. In my mind a bit like Martinu, whose cause I remember being ready to champion should I have met the (best left unnamed) critic who glibly said that the Czech composer wrote too much, most of little quality. If I had met that particular person I would have been driven to violence, especially when you consider that the critic probably has little comprehension of Martinu’s full output, and therefore cannot be in a fit state to pontificate on its quality or otherwise.

So too Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). Too often you read the ill-educated solecism that he was a self-taught, tuneful but ultimately prolific and rather vacuous composer. Yet when I get a chance to hear his works (precious few in the concert hall) Villa-Lobos’s lyricism and distinctive ear for both melody and orchestration always intrigue me. I got to know Villa-Lobos when I was young from Eugene Goosens’s recording of the ’Toccata’ that, memorably, ends the Bachianas brasileiras No.2; the delightful steam-powered mimicry of ’The Little Train of the Caipira’, to give its alternative name.

The vocalise famous from Bachianas brasileiras No.5, for soprano and eight cellos (Villa-Lobos’s instrument) was something I subsequently grew into, and – even when failing miserably to play it – the Sixth Bachianas brasileiras for flute and bassoon was another favourite. I particularly liked the fact that he did not just make up one new genre – the Bachianas brasileiras – but a second as well, the Chôros, writing a number of each for various combinations of instruments (nine of the former, fourteen of the latter). He also wrote ballets, film scores (championed by Marco Polo under Robert Duarte a while ago, and perhaps now waiting re-release on Naxos), concertos and a Broadway musical (Magdalena) as well as two operas.

Then there are the symphonies, twelve in all. Twelve! In a century reputed to have seen the death of the symphony, Villa-Lobos comes up with more than most, only pipped at the symphonic finishing post (albeit by some margin) by the likes of Hovhaness, Havergal Brian, Segerstam and Pettersson.

Well, at least now there is a chance of hearing some of the symphonies. CPO has been slowly releasing a cycle conducted by Carl St.Clair with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Volume 4 couples Symphony No.3, written in 1919, and – perhaps not surprisingly – entitled ’A Guerra’ (To War) and Symphony No.9 written in 1952.

Already released are Symphony No.1 (’The Unexpected’, 1916) and Symphony No.11 (1955) – CPO 999 568-2; Symphony No 4 (’Victory’, also 1919) and Symphony No.12 (1957) – CPO 999 525-2; and Symphony No.6 (1944) and Symphony No 8 (1950) – CPO 999 517-2.

That only leaves Symphonies No.2 (1917), No.5 – the end of the war trilogy, called ’Paz’ (Peace, 1920) – the similarly peace-inspired No.7 (’Odisséia de Paz’, 1945) and the choral No.10, (’Sume pater patrium’) from 1952.Hardly any are available in other recordings – although the composer himself conducted No.4 in that marvellous EMI/Radio France box-set (“Villa-Lobos Par lui-même” EMI 2 C 153-14090/9). There’s a more recent recording of No.10 from the Santa Barbara Symphony and Choral Society, conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor (Koch 3-7488-2), released in 2000. Intriguingly even in Villa-Lobos literature, the symphonies get short shrift. Lisa M. Peppercorn’s “Villa-Lobos The Music” (1972, Kahn & Averill) only mentions the first five and the seventh symphonies, while Simon Wright’s “Oxford Studies of Composers: Villa-Lobos” (OUP 1992) only has an index reference to Symphony No.11. Gerard Béhague’s “Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil’s Musical Soul” (Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas in Austin, 1994) omits references to Symphonies Nos 6 & 7, while the discography lists only the Radio France recording of Symphony 4.

The new CPO recordings don’t make extravagant claims to being première recordings (although the Koch release does claim that honour for the Tenth), but even if not completely new to the catalogue, most are probably receiving their first CD outing. Gerard Béhague provides the notes for this new issue, in passing (and perhaps unintentionally) revealing some of the lacunae in our knowledge of both composer and compositions. For example, the forces for the Third Symphony are said to require an ad-lib chorus – but none is in evidence in the recording…

Are the symphonies worth “discovering”?Of course they are, and on this new release, persuasively conducted, No.3 is particularly impressive. I listened to it over Armistice Weekend, having just seen King Vidor’s The Big Parade with Carl Davis’s magisterial orchestral score played by the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. That is perhaps the most astounding anti-war film I have ever seen (not couched in particularly pacifist terms, just showing what war was really like). Considering it dates from just six years after the First World War it is little short of shattering.Listening to the first of Villa Lobos’s ’War Trilogy’ symphonies (all loosely based on texts by poet Escragnole Dória), I was reminded immediately of Martinu’s response to the Second World War (in his 1942 First Symphony) – hence the reason for mentioning the Czech by analogy in the first paragraph.

There is the same extraordinary shifting quality to Villa-Lobos’s music: as soon as you feel you’ve grasped it, it slithers away from you. An introductory build-up opens out into a forward-moving musical tapestry titled ’A vida e o labor’ (Life and work). A military angle raises it head, with martial tread and Mahler-like barrack fanfares, but this subsides into lighter music. Snatches of ’Le Marseillaise’ indicate the inexorable approach of war just before the final chord. The second movement (’Intrigas e cochichos’ – Intrigues and whispers) has a distinct Vaughan Williams air (or perhaps Holst’s Mercury) in its chattering scherzo manner, while the funereal tread of the third, and by far the longest, movement seems redolent of Wagner’s funeral march for his beloved Siegfried – especially with its loaded and repeated upward scale – but is more immediate and vibrant in its conjuring up of not only the suffering indicated by its title, ’Sofrimento’ but also the courage of war’s participants, with an especially haunting oboe solo towards the middle. The final movement moves into actual battle (’A batalha’), with the return of ’Le Marseillaise’, fragments of the Brazilian national anthem and snatches of themes from the first three movements. The coda rises to a ferocious climax and leaves us amidst the horror of war.

Symphony No.9 was premièred by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in the year of its composition (1952). Roughly half the length of the Third at nineteen minutes, this work is without a programme, and perhaps best seen in the ’absolute’ music tradition of Honegger or Hindemith. With a strident first movement, a slow movement crawling out of the depths and the rhythmic exigencies of the scherzo, the symphony ends with a frenetic finale. It would make an ideal opener for a concert, and may make some converts as well.

The final work is the Ouverture de l’Homme Tel, originally written as part of a vocal suite setting Brazilian poetry in 1929. Villa-Lobos made a full orchestration of it in 1952 – the year of the Ninth Symphony – and premièred it in Lisbon.Despite its Brazilian textual inspiration, Béhague is right to point out that it owes little to Brazilian music, rather it reflects the Parisian avant-garde of the late 1920s. The grumbling piano that accompanies the instrumental lines of slow introduction makes way for a slow fanfare, which is developed with chugging strings in the main allegro. A distinctive trombone solo is followed by plaintive oboe accompanied by rippling clarinet, before a positively Rossinian parody takes over for the final stretches before its sudden curtailment. Unusual, and definitely worth hearing.

The recordings are slightly dry but only occasionally do not open enough to do the climaxes full justice. CPO’s release schedule has been one-a-year so far since 1999, and one can only hope the remaining four symphonies are already taped and are simply awaiting release. Can’t be soon enough for me – and then (I hope I’m not second-guessing CPO’s release policy) there could be a box set. Perhaps, as a Villa-Lobos taster, the three ’War Symphonies’ could be repackaged and sold together? If that, somehow, could persuade an (admittedly) brave promoter, perhaps Villa-Lobos could make an in-road to concerts. On the strength of these performances there is no reason why these works – particularly No 3 – could not hold their heads up high in such circumstances. Is it too difficult a concept that No.3 ’A Guerra’ could be coupled successfully with Shostakovich’s Leningrad?

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