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.