Monday, October 28, 2019

São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Guitar Concerto, Harmonica Concerto, Sexteto Místico, Quinteto Instrumental

In the past ten years we've been blessed with a new generation of Villa-Lobos recordings from São Paulo that have instantly become the new standards for interpretation, instrumental playing and engineering. These include the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, Choros and Symphonies series. Now we have a very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil, which takes on the first of the composer's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works.

The Guitar Concerto, written for Andrès Segovia in 1951, is somewhat controversial. Jason Vieaux, speaking for the Defence, has expressed his love for the work. Meanwhile, John Williams said, "it just isn't a very good piece, technically or musically." This has always been a popular work, thanks to a plethora of great recordings, by Julian BreamGöran Söllscher, and my own favourite, by Norbert Kraft. There's even a very convincing recording by John Williams himself! But I'll admit that, at least in its final movement, the Guitar Concerto, like much of the commissioned music from Villa's final decade, suffers from some undistinguished patches of banal passage-work, though in this case they connect some of the composer's finest tunes. Lovely tunes were never a problem for this guy! I've only listened to this new recording of the Concerto by Manuel Barrueco and OSESP (the São Paulo Symphony) under Giancarlo Guerrero, five or six times, but I'm already suspecting this will go to the very top of the list. Barrueco's playing is outstanding, especially in the Cadenza, and even in the Finale the partnership between soloist and orchestra makes the most compelling case for bringing this work out of the John Williams cold.

Eero Tarasti refers to Villa-Lobos's "limpid late period". The Harmonica Concerto, written for John Sebastian in 1955, partakes fully of the relaxed, late-night noodlings that are seemingly built-in to the instrument. Beginning with a theme that's disconcertingly similar to the Hancock's Half-Hour theme-song by Wally Stott/Angela Morley, Villa-Lobos continues his formula here: lots of arresting, sometimes quite beautiful, themes held together with characteristic runs and doodles by the solo instrument. In this case, as so often throughout his career, Villa-Lobos cottons on to a wider variety of effects from his instruments than are standard, providing a kaleidoscopic effect of instrumental orchestral colours. The playing here by José Staneck is very fine, though this recording lacks some of the energy of the classic album by Robert Bonfiglio and the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz.

As fine as these two works are, I was most interested in the two chamber works, by the OSESP Ensemble, made up of some very fine musicians indeed. The Sesteto Místico (aka Sextuor Mystique) was nominally written in 1917, though it was revised later in Villa's career. This is a fine example of Villa's modernist style, well ahead of anything being written in Latin America, and close to the leading edge in Europe. Tarasti refers to its "contrapuntal colorism... a refined, aquarelle-like texture simply because of the choice of instruments." He notes that "a corresponding combination is not to be found in European chamber music of the period." This is a very fine recording, with delicate filigree effects and all the colours of the rainbow.

We return to the 1950s with the Quinteto Instrumental, written in 1957. This is a work of pure nostalgia, though it's French nostalgie rather than the usual Brazilian saudade, with Villa-Lobos looking back to his time in Paris in the 1920s. The sounds of the instruments evoke Ravel, as does the mildly ironic and sentimental tone of the music. If there is a falling-off in Villa-Lobos's inspiration in the commissioned works of the 1950s, it's hard to hear it in the great chamber works of the period, including the late String Quartets and this Quintet. And it's a great work to end this very, very fine disc from São Paulo. I look forward to more in this series!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019. This review also appears at Music for Several Instruments.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Two modernist masterworks in Paris

Here is an announcement of an important concert, from the Parisian journal Excelsior : journal illustré quotidien : informations, littérature, sciences, arts, sports, théâtre, élégances, June 1, 1929. The headline works are two masterpieces of modernism: Edgard Varèse's Amériques, & Heitor Villa-Lobos's Amazonas. From Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque National de France.

This is pretty much a rave from the correspondent, Pierre Leroi. He says of Amazonas, "C'est une véritable orgie de thèmes, souleves par un souffle irrésistible. Et des oppositions heurtées de couleurs, d'ombres et de clartés achèvent de donner á l'œuvre un relief saisissant."

Leonard Bernstein's Little Train

This is very cool: Leonard Bernstein & the New York Philharmonic play, and beautifully demonstrate, Villa-Lobos's "Little Train" movement from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 2. This is a masterpiece of classical music education, from the renowned Young People's Concerts series. Thanks once again to Rodrigo Roderico for posting this.


"That's the noisemaking department back there." Here, from the Library of Congress, is Bernstein's list of the interesting percussion instruments Villa-Lobos uses.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Sinfonietta no. 1 from Porto Alegre

Watch Simone Menezes conduct the Orquestra Sinfônica de Porto Alegre (OSPA) in a portion of Villa-Lobos's engaging Sinfonietta no. 1, written "in memory of Mozart".

Mozart isn't a composer one normally thinks of in connection with Villa-Lobos, and indeed, this sounds unlike anything else Villa wrote. But in the end nearly everything is grist for Villa-Lobos's musical mill, and the results are certainly worth his tarrying on this particular neo-classical by-way. The Sinfonietta no. 1 has become the musical calling card of Simone Menezes, whose career is certainly heating up. I hope that this piece will always be in her repertoire even when she tackles the big bruisers of orchestral music; charm always has its place!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Villa-Lobos by Jean Manzon

I've seen this photo on the web before, though usually in a cropped version, but I never knew who the photographer was. It turns out it's by the French photo-journalist Jean Manzon. He began working in Paris before WWII, for Paris Soir and Paris Match, but moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1940. The Villa-Lobos portrait looks like it might be from the mid-1950s.

The composition of this picture reminds me a bit of this 1961 still-life by the great Brazilian photographer Otto Stupakoff, which was used on the cover of a recent Naxos Villa-Lobos Symphonies disc.

But back to Jean Manzon. Here's his very fine portrait of another great Brazilian, the painter Candido Portinari.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A strong, atmospheric, Villa-Lobos program

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Lenda do Caboclo, Próle do bébê No. 2 (excerpts), Choros No. 5, Bachianas brasileiras No. 4, Valsa da dor, Ciclo brasileiro (excerpts), Poema singelo

It's great to see a new Villa-Lobos disc; there's been a significant drop-off in recording activity in the years leading up to 2019, the 60th anniversary of the Maestro's death. Villa's piano repertoire is a major strength of his catalogue, reflecting both his modernist and nationalist tendencies. Though no virtuoso pianist himself, the composer was very close to some of the greatest pianists in Brazil and Europe: Rubinstein, Blumenthal, and Novaes, among many others. And we have a wide range of superb recordings available, from pianists like Nelson Freire, Marc-André Hamelin, Sonia Rubinsky and Marcelo Bratke. This is a well-chosen program from the Washington D.C. based Jason Solounias, though I would have preferred that he include the entire Ciclo brasileiro (the great Dance of the White Indian is missing). Many single-disc piano programs include Choros no. 5, Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4, and the Valsa da dor, but it's good to see some pieces from the 2nd Book of the marvellous Próle do bébê, which isn't as well known as the 1st.

I was quite impressed with the playing throughout; the tricky rhythms are solid, and there's a real sense of atmosphere that goes with Villa-Lobos's various landscapes: for example, the scrubland of Brazil's north-east in the Festa no sertão from the Ciclo brasileiro, and the Canto do sertão from BB#4. In the latter movement, very few pianists (or conductors in the orchestral version) play the insistent note of the Araponga percussively enough for my taste - they should listen to the call of the bird itself. Hit those B-flats harder! This performance of the lovely Valsa da dor is full of grace and style; Solounias plays the piece with sentiment but without sentimentality.

I enjoyed the liner notes, which include a fascinating conversation between Solounias and pianist Jose Ramos Santana, though there were a few points I disagreed with. I won't bore you with those here. Okay, maybe just one! Ramos Santana posits that "The older [Villa-Lobos] got, the music becomes more dense and complex." Though there's obviously no simple trajectory, I would think that in terms of complexity Villa's piano music peaked early, with Rudepoema and Próle do bébê (both of which were published in 1921). When the composer returned from Brazil and undertook his folkloric research and educational responsibilities, and a more nationalistic tone, his music becomes more popular and accessible (and easier to play!) This process played out in the 1930s, and you can hear it here in the Bachianas and the Valsa da dor.

This is a very promising beginning, and I look forward to future albums from Jason Solounias. Any repertoire would be great, but I would suggest Rudepoema, one of the greatest 20th century works for the piano. And, oh yes!, The Dance of the White Indian.

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

This review is also posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Villa's Hollywood adventure

I've posted and tweeted many times about Heitor Villa-Lobos's Hollywood adventure in the late 1950s. He was hired to write the score for MGM's 1959 film Green Mansions, directed by Mel Ferrer, and based on William Henry Hudson's novel. There are a number of great photographs of the composer and Mindinha hanging out with the stars on the set; some of them at least are by the great photographer Bob Willoughby. Here's one I haven't seen before:

Behind the camera is the great cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg; next to him are the stars of the film, Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. Villa-Lobos tells Mel Ferrer a joke; I expect it's one of his tall tales from his early years wandering in the Amazon forest. Looks like the photographer (Willoughby?) cut off Mindinha at the far right of the picture.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Villa-Lobos in today's O Estado de São Paulo

From today's O Estado de São Paulo (August 4, 2019), "Villa-Lobos Pelo Avesso" ("Villa-Lobos Inside Out").

Besides two favourite pictures of the composer with the stars of MGM's 1958 film Green Mansions, Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, there are two recent books referenced in the article:

and Villa-Lobos um compêndio: novos desafios interpretativos, 2017, edited by Paulo de Tarso Salles and Norton Dudeque

Thanks to Luciene Gelmini for the head's-up on this!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

More Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach

Earlier I posted a portrait of Villa-Lobos by the German-American photographer Josef Breitenbach, from 1957. There are also a series of photographs from a session in 1959. As usual the composer is open and interactive. The photographer has picked up on the special bond between Villa & Mindinha.

1959 was, of course, the year of Villa-Lobos's death, and some pictures from then show him tired or in pain. There's a certain amount of that here, but also great dignity. This is a portrait of a serious man, and a genius.

Heitor Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach, 1959. Direct and clear-eyed, with, and without, the famous cigar.

These photos are from The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation at The Center for Creative Photography.

Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach

Here's a portrait of Heitor Villa-Lobos that I don't think I've seen before. It's from New York in 1957; the photographer is Josef Breitenbach. I wonder which score the composer is working on. His published works that year included mostly chamber music, but 1958 saw important orchestral and operatic works: Forest of the Amazon and A Menina das Nuvens. What a cool pen he uses to write his music!

From The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, via The Center For Creative Photography.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Strong Villa-Lobos guitar, and a great modernist chamber work

Villa-Lobos: Preludes & Etudes for Solo Guitar; Sextuor Mystique

I've always thought of Urania as a re-mastering and re-packaging company, and over the years I've enjoyed a number of their historic reissues (most recently, a fine album of Paul Hindemith conducting his own music). But they also do a lot of original recording in Italy, and there are many such discs to explore on their website. One that naturally caught my eye was this all-Villa-Lobos disc from guitarist Andrea Monarda. His version of Villa's Preludes and Etudes for Solo Guitar goes into the very, very long queue of recordings of these works. Popular works that fit nicely on a single LP or CD have a tendency to multiply. I'd rate Monarda a bit above the middle of this crowded pack, he delivers a lively performance that's especially well recorded. I often find that a particular guitarist will be stronger in one group or the other ("the classical guitar world is divided into two types of musicians..."), and Monarda, I think, is much more successful in the Etudes. A couple of the Preludes are perhaps a bit under-characterized, when compared with outstanding versions by Norbert Kraft or Timo Korhonen. But Monarda impressed me with the drama of the 1st and 12th Etudes, and the saudade of the 5th and 11th.

However, it's the title work which sets apart this album: the remarkable Sextuor Mystique (aka Sexteto Mistico), nominally written in 1917, though the score was lost and Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory decades later. The musicologist Lisa Peppercorn believes it was actually written during the 1920s, Villa's modernist period that includes some of his greatest music; I would tend to agree. Monarda has put together an ensemble named for the work, though it's unlikely the Sextuor Mystique Ensemble will be able to find anything else written for just this combination of instruments: guitar, flute, oboe, harp, saxophone and celesta. The SME do a marvellous job in this case, highlighting its Paris/Rio split personality.

The two decades before and after the Millennium were a golden age of Villa-Lobos recordings. The great composer's reputation was rising after its inevitable decline following his death in 1959, and his Centennial in 1987 primed the pump for a strong comeback. Soon there were multiple new discs released every month. Lately, though, there have been fewer and fewer new releases, with the notable exception of the recently completed Complete Symphonies series from Naxos. It's encouraging, then, to see this new project from Italy. I hope it's the sign of more Villa-Lobos activity to come.

This review was also posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rudepoema for Orchestra

Here's a marvellous work: the orchestral arrangement Richard Rinjvos made in 2010/2011 of Villa-Lobos's great piano work from 1921/26, Rudepoema, which was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by James Gaffigan, in a 2011 concert from the Concertgebouw.

Villa-Lobos made his own orchestral arrangement of the piece in 1932. It was published by Max Eschig, and performed a few times in the 1940s, including at this 1945 Boston Symphony Concert at Harvard.

In his book on Villa-Lobos, Prof. Eero Tarasti comments:
When one compares the piano version of Rudepoema to the orchestral arrangement made by the composer himself, one can only be amazed at how 'orchestral' the piano work already is.
Thanks again to Rodrigo Roderico for posting this. I remember listening to this on Radio Netherlands Worldwide, back in 2011; it's nice to have it back.