Saturday, September 4, 2021

Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4

This is great: Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4, recorded at the Philharmonie Berlin, 2020. Ever since I started writing about Villa-Lobos on the web, nearly 30 years ago, I've been waiting for major orchestras to begin programming works other than BB#5. Maybe number 4 will be a break-through piece for our Villa.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Erico Verissimo & Villa-Lobos

The novelist Erico Verissimo is well-known & well-regarded in Brazil, to judge by his Wikipedia article, though there don't seem to be many of his works available in English translations. I know him as a friend of Heitor Villa-Lobos. He sometimes acted as Villa's translator and was always a strong supporter of the composer, whom he called "the greatest minstrel of our people."

Erico Verissimo by Leonid Streliaev

Erico Verissimo is introduced as Villa's translator early in Zelito Viana's wonderful 2000 film Villa-Lobos: Uma Vida da Paixão:

VILLA LOBOS from Paisagem Filmes on Vimeo.

Here are Villa & Erico together, in a photo from Instituto Moreira Salles's Erico Verissimo archives:

I love this story that Verissimo tells in his Cronica; Villa-Lobos is speaking to an American audience: "He didn't have a clear theme for his talk, telling stories about music and musicians, not bothering about coherence."

After a time, he seemed somewhat at a loss and tired of all this talk. He glanced behind him, and off to the sides, as if he were looking for something, and cried out, "I want a piano! Bring me a piano!" Lukas Foss got up from his chair and went off to find a grand piano, which eventually was brought onto the stage.

'Still with his cigar between his teeth, our Villa sat down at the noble instrument, played a few chords, looked at the audience, and said, "I'll play Brahms" ... He begins to play a passage from a sonata, and then comments "and the piano won't budge." He addresses himself to the Apassionata and lightly plays the opening phrase.

'Turning to the audience, "I play Beethoven, but the piano doesn't stir." After that comes Schumann, Schubert, Chopin. And, according to the Maestro, the piano continues not to "budge." Finally the speaker cries out, "I'll play Villa-Lobos!" His hands romped over the keys, producing a passage from his "Rudepoema." He got up and pointed to the piano, exclaiming. "It budged! It budged!"'

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Violin sonatas

The indispensable series The Music of Brazil, from Naxos Records, continues with a very valuable new disc: the three violin sonatas that Villa-Lobos wrote between 1912 and 1920.  The first is one of his earliest works, and it shows the composer (25 years old at the time) still working in a conservative French style; César Franck's Violin Sonata is his primary model, as it had been for so many young composers. Villa gave it the title Violin Sonata (Fantasia) No. 1 ‘Désespérance’, which looks backward and forward at the same time. The romantic subtitle was soon to be passé for Villa-Lobos, in favour of more modern, and modernist, branding; Villa-Lobos became obsessed with the new, even the avant garde, for much of his life. At the same time, though, the composer was settling into fantasia as a composing trope, again for much of his career. His orchestral works especially eschewed structural integrity in favour of a free development of ideas - the more ideas, the better. This is one of the first fantasias of many in Villa-Lobos's large catalogue of works. Luckily for us, Villa-Lobos has a great melodic gift, and a knack, even this early, in changing things up just before we tire of them. The first violin sonata is easy on the ears.

There's a significant development as a composer, though, by the time of the 2nd sonata, from 1914. Villa-Lobos was a professional cellist with an already-long resumé by his mid-20s, so the string writing is solid. He adds a much more impressive piano part in Violin Sonata no. 2, though. Villa composed at the piano, and though he was never himself a virtuoso pianist, he ended up as one of the great piano composers of the 20th century. This work is an important stage in that development.

It's the 3rd Violin Sonata, though, from 1920, that's really something special. Villa-Lobos had written his great piano series A prole do bebe, book 1, in 1918, following it up with the second book in 1921, the same year in which he wrote his great work Rudepoêma. So we have assured string writing with a much more interesting piano part. This work is an important marker on Villa-Lobos's voyage to full modernism, which was to be marked by his starring role in the Semana do Arte Moderna in 1922. 

The team of violinist Emmanuele Baldini and pianist Pablo Rossi play these works with style and finesse. They give the first sonata a proper dose of salon music sentimentality, as befits a work with the subtitle Désespérance’. Most importantly, they don't give it more weight than it can bear; there are small hints of Villa's heroic future here, but anything more would be anachronistic. The second sonata is played with some freedom, even a bit of swing, which helps to keep Villa-Lobos's Vincent d'Indy structure from sounding too four-square. And they let loose in the superb third sonata, giving us a hint of the modernistic furor the music of this period would cause at the Semana do Arte Moderna in São Paulo, Brazil's version of the Rite of Spring riot of 1913.

A special release, beautifully recorded.

This review is also at Music for Several Instruments. This disc will be released on July 9, 2021.


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Villa-Lobos goes electric!

In this 1957 photo from the Museu Villa-Lobos photo archive, Heitor Villa-Lobos demonstrates a "Pio instrument." I'm not at all sure what this instrument is, and I would appreciate help from readers of The Villa-Lobos Magazine. Is is some sort of wire with an electro-acoustic pickup, using a Pio capacitor? Is Villa-Lobos dabbling with the same infernal electronica that got Bob Dylan into so much trouble at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965?

Villa-Lobos mostrando o instrumento ‘Pio’

Villa-Lobos has a long history of innovative instrumentation, going back to Amazonas in 1917. This large orchestral work calls for both a violinophone and a sarrusophone, still rarely used at the time.

In a review of a 1930 concert conducted by Villa-Lobos, Mario de Andrade mentions Villa's innovative use of a violinophone in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 1, rather than the violino piccolo Bach asked for, tuned a minor third or fourth higher than a regular violin. This is hardly Historically Informed Practice by today's standards, but Andrade was impressed: "The effect was very curious, especially the timbre in the second movement, marrying admirably the timbre of the violinophone with that of certain wind instruments."

Violí Stroh = Violinophone (ca. 1900)
Compagnie française du gramophone. Museo de la Música de Balcelona

In 1945 The New Yorker reported on Villa-Lobos's use of "piano stuffers" onstage in Choros no. 8, at a Philharmonic-Symphony concert conducted by Artur Rodzinski. This was written in 1925, so Villa-Lobos was well ahead of John Cage in the use of a Prepared Piano.

When Villa-Lobos attended the 1939 World's Fair in New York, he must have been impressed with the new Hammond Novachord, the world's first commercial polyphonic synthesizer, which was demonstrated there. In 1945 one of these amazing instruments must have made its way to Rio de Janeiro, since Villa used it in three scores from that year: Madona, the Seventh Symphony, and the Fantasia for Cello & Orchestra. Watch this wonderful performance of Madona; you'll see three keyboard instruments: a piano, a celesta and, a novachord?

In his orchestral score Ruda: Song of Love, written for La Scala in 1951, Villa-Lobos calls for a "solovox". This is an electronic organ manufactured by Hammond in the 1940s.  Villa-Lobos also used a solovox in his opera Yerma, from 1955, The Emperor Jones ballet in 1956, and his late masterpiece from 1958, Floresta do Amazonas, which I wrote about yesterday. Speaking of which, there's a photograph from the recording of that work in New York in late 1958 that shows an instrument with a second small keyboard underneath the main keyboard. This looks a lot like a solovox!

Check out the instrument at the top left, with two rows of keys. A solovox?

Here's an example of a solovox to compare. When it comes time to record, you can only use the instruments that are available!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Recording Foresta do Amazonas in New York

In 1958, at the Manhattan Towers Hotel in New York, Heitor Villa-Lobos conducted Bidu Sayão and the Symphony of the Air & Chorus in his late masterpiece Floresta do Amazonas. I was pleased to see some photographs of the recording from the wonderful photo archives of the Museu Villa-Lobos Website.

These are not the usual snapshots, but professional photographs that really give a feeling for what it was like to be there during these historic sessions. Here's a lovely picture of the great Bidu Sayão:

This shot shows what a big undertaking this was. With Villa-Lobos, less is not usually more; more is barely enough. By the way, wasn't Villa lucky to get so many of his large-scale works recorded, and in many cases by excellent musicians.

Villa-Lobos's close friend Walter Burle-Marx, the composer and conductor, was an advisor on this project. Here he is with Villa-Lobos; I don't imagine too many conductors bring a guitar to the podium with them. This is all about authenticity for Villa!

What a lovely photograph of Villa-Lobos and Bidu Sayão! These two shared a special musical bond; they go way back! I've seen this one photograph very often over the years. I wish I know who took these shots.

Here's the back-end of the mass of musicians assembled to record Floresta do Amazonas. I'm a bit puzzled by it; I only see one  celesta in the score. It's been suggested that perhaps they doubled the instrument to allow it to cut through the orchestra and chorus.

Floresta do Amazonas began as a film score, for the MGM feature Green Mansions, starring Audrey Hepburn & Anthony Perkins, and directed by Hepburn's husband at the time, Mel Ferrer. The Hollywood experience wasn't a success for Villa-Lobos, but I believe he had some respect for the veteran film composer Bronislaw Kaper, who understood the studio system better, and who used some of Villa's music in his own eventual score. Everything worked out in the end, though; Foresta do Amazonas turned out to be one of Villa's late masterworks. Here are Bronislaw & Heitor together in Hollywood:

The United Artists recording on LP is a collector's item; you can buy a re-mastered CD here. There are also a number of very good new recordings on CD and the streaming services. Here is the Symphony of the Air recording via YouTube:

Friday, May 14, 2021

Electrical Villa


Heitor Villa-Lobos Tristorosa

According to Gunter Herbig, "Playing classical guitar music on the electric guitar is a process of reinvention, re-telling and re-imagining." The Five Guitar Preludes of Villa-Lobos, core to the classical guitar repertoire, are a perfect test-bed for such reinvention. Villa-Lobos made his name rejiggering various types of music: from the Amazon rainforest and West Africa, the salons of Rio's high society and the street musicians of the working classes, the orchestras of the opera pit and the cinemas. Most famously, he brought Bach's music to Brazil, running it through the kaleidoscope of his endlessly inventive mind, and turning out his fetching Bachianas Brasileiras, as well as the 3rd Guitar Prelude, "Homenagem a Bach".

In many ways the transition of the Villa-Lobos Preludes from acoustic to electric guitar is analogous to the shift to the piano from clavier or harpsichord in Bach's keyboard works. In both cases you gain colour, forcefulness and sustain, while perhaps losing delicacy, balance, and certainly a boat-load of authenticity. It will be interesting to see if Herbig's experiment is broadly accepted in the CG (Classical Guitar) community, or if it results in the same type of controversy that Bob Dylan caused when he "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. 

It's the Preludes that are the most successful works on the disc, I think. These are strong works - as great as any of Villa's non-orchestral pieces - and are up to the inevitable jostling that comes when their story is re-told. I would count all five as virtually unqualified successes. I love all five of these works so much, whether they're played on an acoustic guitar or, as they are increasingly, in José Vieira Brandão's arrangements for piano. The movements of the folkloric Suite popular brasileira are slight, and seem less happy in their shiny new garb. Like the Suite, Tristorosa is an early work, but originally written for piano. Thus in some ways it has less far to go, sonically, than the early guitar works, on the way to the electric guitar. The least successful piece here is the Choros no. 1, which sounds brash and wobbly on the electric guitar. This perfect evocation of 19th century chorões is too wraith-like, too spiritual, for such an insistent instrument, or such an insistent approach. 

Villa-Lobos wrote his Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 for soprano and eight cellos, but at the same time prepared a version for soprano and guitar. One of my favourite versions of this oft-recorded work is that of soprano Salli Terri and guitarist Laurindo Almeida, from 1958. There's a much different sound world here, with Gunter Herbig and his vocalist Alda Rezende. There's an appealing late-night jazz club feel, and, unlike many (perhaps most) of BB#5 versions, it's like we're listening to something new. Another successful experiment, I think.

Guitar: Gretsch‚White Falcon G7593
tuned at A = 432Hz
Amp: Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
Over the 25 years or so I've been listening to and writing about Villa-Lobos, I've never seen an album with technical information that looks like this! Such fun!

Listen to Alda Rezende and Gunter Herbig perform Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, from this fascinating new album:

This review was also posted at Music For Several Instruments.