"The writing is crazy, but it has a point. It's the added salsa and when you play the quartets you have to make them spicy." - first violinist Saúl BitránFrom 1995 to 2001, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano recorded all 17 of the Villa-Lobos string quartets. These were released on the Dorian label on six individual CDs, with two or three pieces on each disc, often with early, middle, and late works mixed together for variety. The performances were hailed by most critics as the definitive performances, which is saying quite a bit. Villa's string quartets were already well-served on CD, with complete cycles by the Bessler-Reis quartet on (the late, lamented) Brazilian label Kuarup, and by the Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo. There were also recordings of individual works by the Brazilian String Quartet (#01, 06, & 17); the Stuyvesant Quartet (#06); Quadro Brasil (#06); Quarteto Brasileiro da UFRJ (#06, 11, & 17, on separate discs); and the Hollywood String Quartet (#06 again!).
As good as some of those other performances are, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano own these works; they are the best advocates I know for this amazing music.
Now Dorian has put together a box-set of the six CDs, remastered and nicely packaged (in the thinner style which takes up less shelf-space - an important factor for my Villa-Lobos CD collection!) The Dorian CDs always sounded great, and their remastering for this set polishes things up so you feel even more in the presence of the musicians. Dorian has added a seventh disc: a DVD of the group performing #01, and an interview with the musicians talking about Villa-Lobos and his music. There's a really excellent booklet with valuable notes by Juan Arturo Brennan. The pictures chosen for the set (especially the one on the cover of the booklet, which is reproduced above) give a feel for the genial composer writing for this most genial musical form.
The interview is amazing, and I plan on watching it again more carefully. The members of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano - the three Bitrán brothers (Saúl, Arón, & Alvaro) and Javier Montiel - have lived with these works for a long time, and are very thoughtful about the music not just in terms of technique and musicality, but as part of a broader idea of Latin American culture. It's interesting to compare this interview (done in 2009, I presume, or late 2008) with the one the Cuarteto gave to Ken Smith more than a decade ago (published as "Spicing up the harmonies," in The Strad, January 1997, p. 27.) I've learned so much about Villa's music from this article. These musicians who lived so long with this music have the confidence to look at it critically, and to make adjustments that the busy Villa-Lobos might have made if he had time for a second thought:
The first violin has long sections of melody in parallel fourths which work fine on the piano but are incredibly awkward on the violin. I think that he wrote too fast and never revised, because if he thought for a minute about some of his intervals, he would have changed them. This is the major problem with the quartets, because people who don't take the time to revoice [redistributing lines among parts] some passages will play them badly.This reminds me of things Carl St. Clair said about awkware passages in the scores of the Symphonies, and that Kenneth Schermerhorn said about the Bachianas Brasileiras, whose scores were littered with errors. Andres Segovia said the same thing:
Others have written things that were impossible. Villa-Lobos, for example, was a good friend of mine, but in composing for the guitar, he would write a chord that was possible, then another chord that was also possible. But to go from the first chord to the second was impossible [laughs].[Interviewed by Allan Kozinn, in The Guitar Player Book by Mike Molenda]
Having recorded the entire cycle of 17 string quartets and performed the cycle five times (with another coming up in Mexico City later this month), these musicians rate this music very highly. In the DVD interview Saúl Bitrán puts these works in the same league as the cycles by Bartok and Shostakovich, and says that Villa-Lobos' string quartets are much more creative and much more original than the two great 20th century series.
The string quartets include some avante-garde features (especially #03 from 1916, which was the musical centrepiece of the 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo):
Back in 1916, before Bartok or Shostakovich, he wrote a complete movement with left-hand pizzicatos and double harmonics; things no one else had ever thought of. [Arón Bitrán, from the Smith interview]If they flirt with the exoticism which most people connect with Villa-Lobos they do so only to a certain extent. You might not recognise the string quartets as being by the same composer as the Sixth or Tenth Choros. At the end of the cycle, the string quartets become more neo-classic and less emotional. The final works, written when Villa-Lobos was ill, are meditative and suffused with "saudade", the Brazilian version of nostalgic sadness. It's really sad that Villa didn't get a chance to finish his 18th String Quartet, which he was working on when he died. Only sketches remain (they're in the Museu Villa-Lobos).
Keep an eye on the Cuarteto Latinoamericano - their excellent website is a good way to do this. It includes a concert calendar that shows how busy these four musicians are. This Sunday, August 9th, 2009, for example, they're in Santander, Spain, playing Villa's first quartet, along with Turina's fourth and the Spanish composer Agustin González Acilú's sixth quartets. This is the group's 30th anniversary year; let's hope they're around for a long, long time to come.