Thursday, January 31, 2013

Total Immersion: Villa-Lobos

I've been writing about Villa-Lobos on the Internet for 19 years, and in that time I've seen a major shift in Villa's reputation. Here's an indication that the music of Villa-Lobos may be moving even closer to the mainstream. The Barbican Centre will be presenting Total Immersion: Villa-Lobos, an entire day of his music, with concerts by the BBC Singers, the Guildhall Music Ensemble, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. One of the great things about the event is that some very important but rarely programmed works are featured, including Choros #08, Descobrimento do Brasil, and the choral version of Bachianas Brasileiras #9.

The climax of the day is Choros #10, which knocked the socks off Londoners when it was featured in the 2009 Last Night of the Proms. I'm already looking into travel arrangements for this special day!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Stefan Barcsay's Nocturnes

Here, a bit late, is my review of  Stefan Barcsay's excellent CD Nocturnes.

As Martin Wilkening states in his illuminating long liner-note essay, all of the pieces on Stefan Barcsay's Nocturnes relate in some way to the 19th century character pieces written for piano: by Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and others. The character piece in this tradition needs to do only one thing, but it's a very, very hard thing to do right. It must paint for the audience a picture. Writing music like this for guitar has advantages, for the five strings can evoke nearly as wide a range as the piano, and the guitar tradition brings with it built-in connections to the landscapes of Iberia and South America.

This disc of character pieces for guitar juxtaposes a series of works written in the late 20th century with the (arguably) greatest series of character pieces in the entire guitar repertoire, the five Villa-Lobos Preludes. The Villa-Lobos Preludes were written in 1940, and judging by their popularity in recital, in the recording studio and on YouTube, nearly every classical guitarist feels the need to master this 20 minutes of music.

Part of the appeal of this music is, I believe, the strikingly real pictures that Villa-Lobos paints in each prelude: a home-spun farmer from the poor, dry north-east of Brazil; a colourful small-time urban gangster; the abstract beauty of Bach; the mystical, eternal Amazonian Indian; and a street musician of Rio (a self-portrait, perhaps, from Villa's time as a teenage guitarist playing with the choros bands). It requires musical imagination as well as technical mastery to make this music come alive, and German guitarist Stefan Barcsay has both. This is a very satisfying series of Preludes which holds its own among the bewildering variety on disc.

What of the works by the four composers who were all born after Villa-Lobos wrote his preludes, but before Villa-Lobos died in 1959? Enjott Schneider who wrote his three Nocturnes for Barcsay, Dusan Bogdanovic, Richard Heller and Ross Edwards all provide a focus on the mysterious, with shifting harmonies that evoke landscapes lit or obscured by clouds passing in front of the moon. The most interesting of the pieces, Ross Edwards' second Blackwattle Caprice, Richard Heller's second Impromptu and Schneider's second Nocturne, add interest through insistent folk music rhythms. Each of these works perhaps owe as much to Villa's Etudes, which transform technical exercises into abstractly beautiful music, as they do to the pure story-telling of the Preludes. All are interesting and colourful, if not quite the works of towering genius that finish this marvellous CD.

This is very highly recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1940s Caricature of Villa-Lobos

An article from the Washington Times Herald of January 30, 1949. This is from the Gallica Digital Library; unfortunately, there's no higher resolution version available.

The caption reads "Batoneer From Brazil: Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil's leading composer, will be guest conductor of the National Symphony today in Constitution Hall. His program includes music inspired by the savage rhythms he has heard in Brazilian jungles."

It's hard to decipher all the text of the story by Glenn Dillard Gunn, but what I can make out is very interesting, in a gossipy way. Gunn visited Villa-Lobos in Rio in 1940, during Stokowski's visit. Meeting Villa-Lobos at his office, he noticed the composer was uncommunicative and edgy.

"Then I learned why he was nervous. He wanted to get to the Teatro Municipale, where Stokowski was rehearsing his new piano concerto. The pianist, a statuesque blonde named Tagliaferro, did not please him. Nor, seemingly, did Stokowski."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Villa-Lobos String Quartets on DVD

The recent DVD by the Radamés Gnattali Quartet of the complete Villa-Lobos String Quartets is a nominee for the 24th Brazilian Music Awards. Here is the 1st movement of the great 7th Quartet, taken from that set.

Another symphony disc from Karabtchevsky & OSESP

Coming soon: the eagerly-awaited next issue in the complete symphonies series from Naxos. Isaac Karabtchevsky conducts OSESP, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, in the 3rd and 4th symphonies, both written in the year 1919.  The disc will be available at on February 26.


After the war, with such important orchestral works as Uirapuru and Amazonas under his belt, Villa-Lobos was ready to try out some more formal writing for large orchestra. In the 4th symphony especially his work on large canvasses began to pay off, though once the 1920s began he moved to a more modernist style, and shifted his focus to chamber and instrumental works. He wouldn't return to the symphony until the 2nd World War, with #6 in 1944.