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.


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