Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Villa-Lobos String Quartets

While I post this, I'm listening to the Quarteto Amazônia play Villa-Lobos's 8th and 9th String Quartets, on Radio UOL:

This is from a double CD Kuarup disc that finishes off the 17-work series of complete quartets begun by the Bessler-Reis Quartet (who play #1-6, and 12-17).

I have the discs at home, and feel good about having access to these great works. It's convenient to listen online as well - the Radio UOL service is great. It is low-fi, though, so you might want to buy the MP3s from And of course, you can look for the Cuarteto Latinoamericano or Danubius Quartet (on Marco Polo), on CD or MP3s. Your best bet for value, though, comes from Brilliant Classics - they've repackaged the Cuarteto Latinoamericano discs from Dorian at a very nice price. This set, by the way, shows up in a lot of eBay vendor sites. There are a few other options for these works. One is #6 played by The Hollywood String Quartet, in a historic performance now on CD.
Another way to listen to VL's string quartets is at a live concert. Next Sunday, if you're in Southern California, you can hear #4 played by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano.

I don't think we can call the Villa-Lobos quartets unknown any more; not with this many CDs, MP3s, online streams, and live performances out there.

But coming back to the Kuarup set, you can read the notes online at the Kuarup site, or in Google-English-ish translation. They include an essay by Antonio Hernandez entitled "Confronto de colossos". The other colossos that Villa confronts in his String Quartet series is Bela Bartok. Are the cycles of quartets by Bartok and Villa-Lobos the greatest two of the 20th century? I would guess lots of music lovers would agree with Bartok, but they might think of Shostakovitch or ten or twelve other composers before they'd come up with Villa-Lobos.

The tendency in much of the literature about string quartets is to remind people that Villa-Lobos wrote in this genre at all, since everyone tends to write and talk about the folkloric side of his music: the Bachianas and Choros series, and the guitar music. Another common thread is to talk about Villa the innovator, as in this excerpt from Robin Stowell's 2003 Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet (p. 161):

Remarkably, Villa-Lobos wrote, as early as 1916, a complete movement with left-hand pizzicatos and double harmonics, effects only rarly tapped before in the medium. His subsequent exploitation of harmonic effects in his Third Quartet is remarkable, as are, on paper at least (because they rarely sound!), the ponticello harmonics required by Berio in his Sincronie.

We'll see if the Villa-Lobos quartets can climb the ladder of composer reputations in the coming years, at least part-way as high as the Villa-Lobos devotees might think they deserve.

1 comment:

  1. The Villa-Lobos String Quartet based in The United States is going on tour on may and june with concerts in the USA and Europe. The new program includes compositions by Villa-Lobos, Guerra-Peixe, Nepomuceno and Lacerda.
    Please visit VLSQ at: