Monday, April 20, 2020

A fascinating release, with outstanding Villa-Lobos

Aline Van Barentzen: Piano music by Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Liszt, Falla, Brahms

In March of 1927, the American pianist Aline Van Barentzen performed, in the Salle Gaveau in Paris, a new work dedicated to her by Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Second Book of A Prole do Bébé.  Along with Rudepoema, dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein and also played in Paris that year, these nine short pieces represent some of the most important modernist works of the entire piano repertoire. It's marvellous to hear this music, recorded in 1956 for Pathé, in a fine re-mastering. Barentzen recorded the eight pieces of the First Book as well; these are much better known, but less adventurous in terms of harmony and rhythm. Though the subject of this music relates to childhood, this is way too virtuosic to be undertaken by any child who isn't a full blown prodigy. As can be expected, Van Barentzen has complete control over these pieces; she must have consulted with Villa when he first presented them to her in 1925, and again thirty years later, when both pianist and composer spent a lot of time in the Pathé recording studios.

Program: Museu Villa-Lobos
Two years later, in 1958, Van Barentzen recorded Villa-Lobos's Choros no. 5, subtitled Alma Brasileira, the Soul of Brazil. The following year the composer was gone. This is a very fine version of a very special work, with the tricky rhythms properly lined up, but always sounding surprising. There's more rubato here than you'll hear in most performances today, but the composer is almost looking over her shoulder (he was in Parisian recording studios throughout the late 1950s). Outstanding Villa-Lobos!

I'm most interested in the Villa-Lobos, of course, but there is much more very fine playing on this two-disc set from APR. As I mentioned, the 1950s Pathé recordings sound great; we have here pieces by Liszt (Un Suspiro is quite lovely) and Chopin (the D-flat major Nocturne is a stand-out). The earlier recordings are understandably less easy on the ears: I wasn't especially convinced by Van Barentzen's Brahms, recorded by HMV in the 1940s. The most interesting recording from a historical perspective goes all the way back to June of 1928. In his informative and entertaining liner notes, Jonathan Summers tells a great story about how this recording came about:
Barentzen’s first recording happened in unusual circumstances. She met Piero Coppola, conductor and director of French HMV, at a reception at the French piano firm of Gaveau in June 1928. He asked if she knew Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España, as Ricardo Viñes who was due to make the premier recording of the work in three days time was ill. Barentzen told Coppola she knew it, although in fact she did not. She learnt it in the three days and was later told by de Falla that he was very pleased with the recording. 
While sonically limited, the freshness of the piano playing and the sitcom circumstances make this a must-listen. What a fascinating release!

This post also appears at Music for Several Instruments.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Piano concertos from an important Brazilian

Almeida Prado: Piano Concerto no. 1; Aurora; Concerto Fribourgeois

The latest release in the marvellous Naxos series The Music of Brazil features the great composer José Antônio de Almeida Prado (1943-2010). One of the most important recording projects of Brazilian music in the past decade was Aleyson Scopel's survey of Almeida Prado's complete Cartas celestes for the Grand Piano label. Though these works were mainly for piano solo, there were three in the official series of 18 that added other instruments (#7 is for two pianos and symphonic band, #8 for violin and orchestra, and #11 for piano, marimba and vibraphone). As well, after he completed the first work in the series, in 1975, he wrote Aurora, for piano and orchestra, which he called an "unofficial Cartas celestes, because it’s not numbered in the same series, but does share the same universe, the same heart, the same élan." What a marvellous work this is, especially as well played as it is by Sonia Rubinsky, the pianist known to most of us as a Villa-Lobos specialist.

There are two other important works for piano and orchestra here: the Piano Concerto no. 1 is the only numbered piano concerto by Almeida Prado. It's a one-movement work from the early 1980s that takes a four-note motif and mashes it about in the Beethoven manner. Rubinsky's virtuosity is required, and in evidence, here, as are the Minas Gerais Philharmonic's players' considerable skills. Fabio Mechetti's task is to ensure both a steady pulse and a sense of coherence across a complex of shifting rhythms, timbres and other sound events.

My favourite piece, though, is the Concerto Fribourgeois, written in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth. It's a post-modern take on neo-classicism, with appearances of musical guests both unlikely (Stockhausen, Messiaen and, once again, Beethoven) and likely (Bach himself, of course, including the famous B-A-C-H motif, but also Villa-Lobos in his Bachianas mode). This is as much fun listening to as it was, I am sure, to play. Bravo to these fine musicians, and to Naxos for this well-researched and beautifully recorded program.

Here's a short documentary on Almeida Prado from 2019, featuring Sonia Rubinsky and Fabio Mechetti.

This review is also posted at Music for Several Instruments.

This album will be released on May 8, 2020.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A letter from Paris

This letter from Heitor Villa-Lobos to Tarsila do Amaral and Oswald De Andrade is from Aracy A. Amaral's 1975 book Tarsila: sua obra e seu tempo. It's a missive from Paris, the world centre of Modernism, to two of the top Brazilian modernists. Villa-Lobos never gets enough credit for his leading edge avant garde musical theory and practice, perhaps because of his transition to more conservative musical styles in the 40s and 50s.

This comes from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts' International Center for the Arts of the Americas' new Documents of Latin American and Latino Art.

Pa! pa! pa!

Villa-Lobos wrote Choros No. 3, "Pica-pau"in 1925, and dedicated it to Tarsila & Oswald. It was premiered in São Paulo that year, and made a big splash in Paris at the famous Salle Gaveau concert in December of 1927.

Here's the Aracy Amaral book.

Here's where Villa-Lobos lived in Paris in the 1920s: Place Saint-Michel, in the Latin Quarter near the Pont Saint-Michel. I'm trying hard to learn my arrondissements: this is on the border between the 4th and the 5th.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Villa-Lobos & Blumental in Vienna

From the Museu Villa-Lobos website

Felicia Blumental plays Villa-Lobos's 5th Piano Concerto, with the composer conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. This is from the Grosser Musikvereins-Saal on May 25, 1955. Blumental commissioned the work, and played the premiere in London a few weeks earlier. The two came together later in the 50s to record the work in Paris, with the Orchestre National de France, for Pathé-Marconi, the 10-LP collection known in the CD era as Villa-Lobos Par Lui-Même.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sinfonietta no. 1 from Porto Alegre

A new video from Simone Menezes: she conducts the Porto Alegre Symphony Orchestra in a relatively unknown work by Heitor Villa-Lobos, his Sinfonietta no. 1, "In memory of Mozart", from 1916. This piece has become Menezes' calling card in concerts in Europe and the Americas. More information about Menezes and her Villa-Lobos Project here.

Thanks once again to Rodrigo Roderico, whose YouTube Channel is the best source for Villa-Lobos video content!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Villa-Lobos in the National Emergency Library

One of the best of the scholarly works that were published in the wake of Villa-Lobos's Centennial in 1987 was Gerard Behague's Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil's Musical Soul, which was published in 1994 by the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. You can borrow this book for free online, from the Open Library project of the Internet Archive. And now, thanks to their National Emergency Library project, the limit on the number of people who can borrow each book has been removed until June 30, 2020. This very fine publication is only one of an amazing 14 million titles in the project! Go to to learn more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Villa-Lobos is, I think, tops

Photo: Instituto Moreira Salles, which holds the Eric Verissimo archives
Villa-Lobos & Erico Verissimo in California, 1944. The Brazilian novelist Verissimo acted as translator for Villa-Lobos during this trip, which the composer made to present his music in Los Angeles, & to accept an honorary degree from Occidental College. Belying their apparent friendship here, the two clashed. This report details some of the issues involved:

Director Zelito Viana begins his 2000 biopic Villa-Lobos: Uma Vida da Paixão, with a very funny series of scenes between Verissimo & Villa-Lobos. Watch here, beginning around 2:30 (then watch this very fine film all the way through!)

Friday, March 6, 2020


OK, this might be an indication that my Villa-Lobos obsession has crossed some sort of line. This is a Maguey for cigar belonging to Heitor Villa-Lobos, from the collection of the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro. Maguey is Agave americana, the century plant. It's a source of fibre, so perhaps this is what Villa's cigar holder is made of. It's pretty rare to see a picture of Villa-Lobos without his faithful cigar.

Photo: João Lima

You can see Villa-Lobos is using a cigar holder in this marvellous portrait by Sabine Weiss.

From the same collection: a gold-plated cufflink which belonged to Francisco Mignone.

Photo: João Lima

You can now go about your regular business...

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Great Villa-Lobos Portraits by Arnold Newman

On September 15, 1951 Heitor Villa-Lobos spent the day with photographer Arnold Newman at the New Weston Hotel in New York. Villa-Lobos is one of the most photogenic of composers, but these shots are among the most impressive ever taken of him.

My favourite Newman portrait is this one of the composer at rest. Villa is in charge here, and Newman gives him his own space.

Then the great portrait photographer takes over, and does some serious psychological searching with this close-up.

It's a tribute to Villa's worldwide fame that he attracted so many fine portrait photographers. Among my favourites: Erich Auerbach; Genevieve Naylor; Roger Viollet; Constantin Joffe & Luis Lemus from Vogue; and Thomas D. Mcavoy, J. Siegelman & most especially W. Eugene Smith from Life Magazine.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Gênesis - & Erosão - from Paris

Another audio recording of rare Villa-Lobos from the Internet Archive: this time it's his Symphonic Poem Gênesis, written in Paris in 1954. Claudio Santoro conducts the Orchestre National de L'Ile de France. This is from a Festival of Paris concert in August 1987.

As it happens, you can hear more Villa-Lobos from the same year, the same orchestra, and the same conductor. Santoro conducted another Villa-Lobos rarity in Paris, Erosão, on March 3, 1987. Unfortunately, Santoro died only two years later, on March 27, 1989. This is a very fine work, by the way; it was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra in 1950.