Monday, May 22, 2017

Masterpieces revealed


Villa-Lobos Symphonies 8, 9 & 11

Villa-Lobos wrote twelve symphonies, though only eleven of the scores survive, and he wrote them from early in his career (1916) to very late (1957, two years before his death). People have been warning us for a long time not to value Villa-Lobos's symphonies too highly. I know this; I've been one of them. Don't expect too much, was the message, his best works are for the guitar and piano, and in the Choros and the Bachianas Brasileiras series. Now that we're well into the Naxos Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) series, led by Isaac Karabtchevsky, I'm beginning to think this particular piece of conventional wisdom might be wrong. These three symphonies sound familiar, sure, because they sound like Villa-Lobos. But even though I've heard all three a number of times, in the very good CPO series from Carl St. Clair and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart made around the turn of the last century, the music on the new disc sounds fresh and new and really quite amazing.  This series is forcing all of us to sit up and take notice of a whole big chunk of Villa-Lobos's legendarily large output.

In his really excellent liner notes the guitarist and musicologist Fabio Zanon talks about how Villa's mature symphonies suffered because they were different from people's expectations and because of editorial problems with the scores. Though I hear the odd echo of the Choros from Villa's heyday in Paris in the 1920s, and plenty of call-outs to the Bachianas Brasileiras series of the 1930s and early 40s, the 8th, 9th and 11th Symphonies share something of a reboot feeling for the composer.  Here he finally turns his back, more or less, on modernism, while doing the same, more or less, with the folkloric music that made his worldwide reputation. There's a neo-classical (not neo-baroque) sound that goes along with early classical symphonic structures. Zanon sees and hears both Haydn and Mozart in this music, with Beethoven and Schubert lurking around the edges. Having stripped down his orchestral music to the essentials, we're now more aware than ever of how Villa-Lobos has constructed the music. To be sure this is still music written for large orchestras, but there's no Brazilian percussion component, no prepared pianos or violinophones, and no over-the-top Romantic gestures. The first movement of the 9th Symphony is instructive. Villa zips out three themes in quick succession, gives them a quick run-through in his contrapuntal-light machine, and then, when you expect a fair bit of noodling, he winds things up abruptly, with a typical Villa-Lobos flourish. All done in less than four and a half minutes. I must say that I like the concise Villa-Lobos; it makes a nice change from the often over-blown padding of more than a few of his works. This is vivid, direct, lively music without empty gesticulation. With the varnish of score errors and outdated preconceptions removed, these three symphonies emerge as masterpieces.

A copy of this review is at Music for Several Instruments. The disc drops on June 9, 2017.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A letter to Paris

Henry Prunières in 1935

Henry Prunières is an important figure in the arts in Paris between the wars. He created La Revue musicale in 1920, running it until 1939. This periodical documented Villa-Lobos's exploits in Paris in the 1920s. Here is a letter Villa-Lobos wrote to Prunières in 1929, from the French National Library's Gallica portal.



Friday, February 10, 2017

Villa-Lobos Harp Concerto from Russia


I noticed the remastered disc of Vera Dulova's 1976 Melodiya recording of the Villa-Lobos Harp Concerto up on the Naxos Music Library today. Here's the original LP:


The Harp Concerto should be much better known than it is. It was written in 1953 on commission from harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.

This is the same disc in a 2015 remastering:

Monday, January 30, 2017

A late interview with Villa-Lobos



This is a really interesting interview that Villa-Lobos gave at the Empire State Music Festival in Harriman State Park (Bear Mountain) in New York, on July 12, 1959. This was the composer's last concert before his death. Though he couldn't have been in the best of health, he sounds his usual self. His wife Mindinha chimes in at the end.

Unfortunately my Portuguese is less than basic, but this Google translation of the YouTube poster's summary give the gist of what Villa said:
Villa-Lobos comments on the issues of the time, welcomes the Brazilian people, declares his love for the homeland - Rio de Janeiro - and talks to the journalist while the orchestra rehearses the presentation of more. In the audio that is now part of the MEC FM radio collection, Villa-Lobos demystifies the creation process. "This business of coming inspiration does not exist in me. I was born inspired already. Either I do a good thing, or I do crap. But this business of me looking for inspiration, letting hair grow to have inspiration, drink, it does not exist in me. I write when I need to. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Uirapuru danced in Madrid



The Argentine choreographer Dani Pannullo and his dance company present Uirapuru, based on Villa-Lobos' great early orchestral masterpiece. The music is played by JORCAM, conducted by Jordi Frances-Sanjuan. This is from 2011.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Merry Christmas from The Villa-Lobos Magazine



Here's a Christmas staple for the Villa-Lobos lover: the beautiful Praesepe, a choral work written in 1952 for alto soloist and mixed chorus, #21 in the collection Musica Sacra, vol. 1.

Villa-Lobos set the words of Padre Jose de Anchieta, a Portuguese missionary to Brazil, written in 1563.

Text and translation are from the liner notes to the Corydon Singers/Matthew Best Villa Lobos sacred music CD on the Hyperion label (CDA6638, 1992/93.) Used with permission of Hyperion Records.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The great beasts of Villa-Lobos

In his liner essay for the third volume of The Guitar Manuscripts on Naxos, guitarist Andrea Bissoli quotes from the memoirs of the Spanish pianist Tomás Terán:
That year [1928] we spent the summer together in Lussac-les-Châteaux. We found a place to stay above a kind of pâtisserie that only opened on high days and holidays. Our rooms looked out over the garden at the back and were divided by a wooden panel that was so insubstantial we could chat to one another through the wall till the early hours. Villa planned to amuse himself by constructing a fleet of kites, so we’d arrived laden down with enormous lengths of bamboo, rope and sheets of paper: the lady who owned the shop below thought we must have been members of a circus ... The day he flew the first kite (designed in the shape of a huge fish), it was caught by a sudden gust of wind just as he was launching it, and went up like a rocket; it dragged Villa along for several metres before I managed to cut its ropes. The kite came down three or four kilometres away: after that experience his “great beasts” frightened me. I suggested to him that in future he should tie them to a tree, for safety’s sake, and he agreed. Those kites were great fun for the people of Lussac. Some days, Villa would play the guitar late into the night (I should point out we were the only people staying at the pâtisserie); that was when he had the idea of composing his studies for the instrument.
This is how Villa-Lobos came to write one of his most important creations: the 12 Etudes for guitar.



Naxos has just released a box set of the three volumes of The Guitar Manuscripts. I'll be writing a review Real Soon Now. In the meantime, here's a picture (from the Museu Villa-Lobos) of Villa-Lobos and Terán with one of Villa's Great Beasts; and via Spotify, the  “symphonic episode” O papagaio do moleque (The little boy’s kite), from the same disc. It's played by the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Fabio Mechetti.

I think that's Villa on the left, Terán in the middle, and I assume Lucilla on the right.