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.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Amazonas from Chicago

An exceptional performance of Amazonas from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Juanjo Mena, from 2013. Thanks to Rodrigo Roderico for posting this.

The ballet Amazonas was written in Rio in 1917, (possibly a re-working of the earlier - now lost - score Myremis) but didn't receive its premiere until 1929 in Paris.  It's a work of real power and focus, one of the young composer's greatest early works. According to Eeero Tarasti, it's " almost avant-gardist work in relation to its time, a work comparable to Varèse's Ameriques."

Is this too good to be true, though? There's no mention in the Museu Villa-Lobos's Villa-Lobos: Sua Obra, 2009, of a manuscript score, so we only have the score published in 1929 by Max Eschig. I'm thinking at least some of this might have been written in 1929, around the peak of Villa-Lobos's modernist period. Or some super-charging, at the very least!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4 from São Paulo

A recent (2019) performance of the orchestral version of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4 from the São Paulo Symphony (OSESP), conducted by Wagner Polistchuk.

Thanks once again to Rodrigo Roderico for posting this.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Villa-Lobos and the City of Brotherly Love

This photograph from the De Agostini collection shows Heitor Villa-Lobos with the Philadelphia Orchestra's Eugene Ormandy; it's dated 1945. This is a standard trope for Villa-Lobos photos: the composer demonstrating Brazilian percussion instruments. I'm assuming that this was taken in Rio de Janeiro, from the instruments and the big map of Brazil on the wall behind the two musicians. They had recently been hanging out together in the States; Ormandy was one of the celebrities - along with Nelson Rockefeller, Leopold Stokowski, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Arturo Toscanini and Yehudi Menuhin - at a Farewell Luncheon for Villa-Lobos in February, 1945.

The main later connection between Villa-Lobos and Ormandy came in 1952, when the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned Villa's 9th Symphony. There's apparently a copy of the original score in the Eugene Ormandy Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, but I don't believe this work has ever been played in the City of Brotherly Love. The première of the Symphony had to wait until 1966, when Ormandy conducted the work in Caracas during a Latin American tour of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Philadelphia can also take credit for the 8th Symphony, from 1950; Villa-Lobos himself conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the première, though, oddly, this was in New York.

Ormandy made no commercial recordings of Villa-Lobos; however there is a Test Pressing disc in the Eugene Ormandy Collection of Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in a suite from Descobrimento do Brasil, a recording from a October 10, 1941 concert. I'd love to hear that! The city of Philadelphia had special meaning for Villa-Lobos because of the connection with Leopold Stokowski, who conducted a number of Villa-Lobos American premières going back to the 1920s.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Ciclo Brasileiro from Brasília

It's so nice to hear Sonia Rubinsky play Villa-Lobos. Thanks to Rodrigo Roderico for posting this recent video of the Ciclo Brasileiro, from a 2018 concert at the Banquet Hall of Itamaraty Palace