Saturday, October 14, 2017

The violinophone in a Bach Brandenburg Concerto

Violí Stroh (ca. 1900), Compagnie française du gramophone. Museo de la Música de Balcelona.
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. Bach calls for a violino piccolo, which is 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."

From: http://literalmeida.blogspot.ca/2008/01/msica-na-semana-de-22.html
Villa-Lobos had used the violinophone, also called a Stroh violin after its inventor, in Amazonas from 1917.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sounds of youth with echoes of maturity



Heitor Villa-Lobos: Symphonies 1 and 2

The Villa-Lobos Symphonies series from Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) under Isaac Karabtchevsky comes to a triumphant conclusion with this disc of the composer's first two symphonies. Though Villa-Lobos was a little bit of a late bloomer - his earliest works aren't especially accomplished by the standards set by Mendelssohn or Schubert - there's an interesting situation keeping this release from being anti-climactic. The 2nd Symphony, ostensibly written in the late teens of the 20th century, had to wait until 1944 for its premiere, and the composer seems to have used more than a bit of his best juju in polishing up this piece for its performance. It thus seems to be far in advance of the 1st symphony, and more importantly, the 3rd and even the 4th, as good as that work is. Though it's true that the 2nd Symphony is based on the principles of composition espoused by Vincent d'Indy and there are many French and Russian-sounding bits, one keeps hearing passages that sound like nothing as much as the Bachianas Brasilieras. And that's all to the good, I think.

By the way, there are a few other works from this period where something similar happened. Villa-Lobos wrote "1917" on the score of the marvellous orchestral work Uirapuru, but it wasn't premiered until 1935. Like the 2nd Symphony, it has a suspiciously nationalistic, Bachianas Brasileiras sound, which isn't surprising considering that the composer conducted the premiere in front of President Vargas. And the score of the Sexteto Mistico (one of my favourite chamber works), written in 1917, was lost. Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory, but obviously slipped in music in the modernist style he had mastered in Paris in the mid-1920s.

With his 1st Symphony Villa-Lobos was still learning to write music for orchestra, but it's still a more than creditable effort. It has a very fine performance here, partly because of the Sao Paulo musicians, who are very much in a groove with their conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky; and partly because of the carefully revised score which fixes many mistakes and excrescences, and in which Karabtchevsky himself played a major role. This performance makes an even better case for the symphony than the very good CPO recording from Stuttgart conducted by Carl St. Clair.

There are two last things to praise.  The Naxos design team has done a great job with this whole series. They've broken out of the bland Naxos cover tradition with striking black and white photographs. This last disc is one of the best; it features Beach at Nightfall, Rio de Janeiro, 1940, by Thomaz Farkas, the great Hungarian photographer who moved to Brazil as a child. Secondly, Fábio Zanon, who is currently Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, provides another absolutely first-class essay for the liner notes, with strong analysis and new insights. Put together, the Naxos Symphonies notes represent a major contribution to Villa-Lobos scholarship. This last disc in the set will be released on November 10, 2017

This review also appears at Music for Several Instruments.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The final disc in the Naxos Symphonies series


Here is the cover of the sixth and final disc in the splendid Naxos set of complete Villa-Lobos Symphonies from OSESP under Isaac Karabtchevsky, due to be released on November 10, 2017. I'll post a review as soon as I get a chance to listen. Once again Naxos has come up with a head-turning design for the cover; design hasn't always been their strong suit over the years, but all six discs in this series are just beautiful. It's based on a stunning photograph: "Beach at Nightfall, Rio de Janeiro," 1940, by Thomaz Farkas.

Here is the back cover:

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A pleasure you suffer


Villa-Lobos: Suite populaire bresilienne; Scriabin:  Prelude pour la main gauche; Ponce: Sonata #3; Takemitsu: Equinox; Sor: Fantaisie Elégiaque

In Paris est une solitude peuplée Judicael Perroy has put together a fascinating group of pieces for the classical guitar, played with style and precision. It's a program of moods, with a focus on the beautifully melancholic, that nostalgic enjoyment one takes in the sad sounds of a lost past. The Portuguese, and especially the Brazilians, have the term saudade, which Manuel de Melo has called "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy." Villa-Lobos's Suite populaire Bresilienne is layered with these feelings. Already when the composer put pen to paper he was remembering an earlier time of street musicians from his father's generation and his childhood. When he added the final movement, the Chorinho, in 1923, there was a new modernist, Parisian layer to the music and an additional layer of sadness and regret. Perroy plays Villa's 1948 revision of this music; the composer was always polishing his early music. I've been listening to this beautiful music for many years, and especially since I began the Villa-Lobos Website nearly 25 years ago, so listening to this fresh sounding version evokes all of the dozens of versions - Kraft, Zanon, Barrueco, Turibio Santos, Leisner, Assad - that I've come to love. The rest of the album continues on a pensive note, with a fine miniature based on a Scriabin work for piano left hand. Works by Ponce, Takemitsu and Sor round out this well-planned, nicely presented and beautifully played album. It's due to be released on September 1st, 2017.

This review has also been posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Latin piano played with cool clarity


Villa-Lobos, Ciclo Brasileiro; Juan Jose Castro, Tangos para Piano; Jose Maria Vitier, Festiva

Back in 1993 I was involved in a CD recording project with Brazilian pianist Ricardo Peres. We recorded Dance of the White Indian* as a fund-raising project for Red Deer Public Library, where I was the Director. I remember sitting down with Ricardo one morning, and he played me this piece, which I had never heard before; I barely knew a thing about Villa-Lobos.



That was the beginning of my Villa-Lobos life on the web, 25 years of it, and counting.

In the last quarter century I've learned a great deal about this music; it's been a time of increasing interest in Villa-Lobos and a major rise in his reputation. His piano music as much as any other segment of his vast output has been the beneficiary of this. Now comes a really excellent new disc from Canadian pianist Andree-Ann Deschenes which contains The Dance of the White Indian and the rest of the Ciclo Brasileiro, one of Villa's greatest works for piano. Here's a live performance of the piece:



You'll note that this performance (which matches the recording on the CD fairly closely) is a much more controlled one than Ricardo's hell-bent for leather version. We'll always have performances on the whole continuum between Villa's warmer, more passionate, more Brazilian/folkloric side and his cooler, more cerebral, more Parisian/modernist one. The Ciclo Brasileiro is a kind of Brazilian travelogue (Villa enjoyed these), written in 1930s, when he was busy writing his Bachianas Brasileiras and the folklore-inspired Guia Pratico. I feel, perhaps counter-intuitively, that Deschenes' cool clarity puts across the regional Brazilian folkloric flavour better than some versions that swing (or even rock) a bit more. In any case, this is very fine piano playing.

The tango, of course, has its own built in hot/cool dynamic, which the Argentine composer Juan Jose Castro, a younger contemporary of Villa-Lobos, uses to excellent effect in his Tangos para Piano, written in 1941. With references to popular songs - La Cumparsita in the first tango Evocación, for example, and 9 de Julio in the last, Nostálgico - Castro brings the rhythms of the dance halls to Argentina's art music, which Villa-Lobos had been doing for some time in Brazil. I admire Deschenes' evocative playing here even more than in the Villa-Lobos, especially the bandoneón-sounding chords at the end of the last tango.

I love the idea of an encore on a CD; they should be as common on disc as in concert. Deschenes plays a fun piece by the Cuban composer Jose Maria Vitier, with able support from percussionist Calixto Oviedo. A fine end to an excellent disc.

* note that the links at this site are long dead!

This review was also posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Tuneful, easy music for guitar and orchestra


Radames Gnattali: Concertinos for Guitar and Orchestra

Radames Gnattali (1906-1988) is such an interesting composer. Nearly 20 years younger than Villa-Lobos, his career in music has much in common with his older compatriot. Both were interested in music at a very early age; both played guitar in popular music ensembles and in silent movie houses; and a melding of popular and classical music became a keynote of their music. However, it's not Villa-Lobos but George Gershwin who Gnattali most reminds me of. Gershwin was only seven years older than the Brazilian, though Gnattali lived a full fifty years longer than the unfortunate George. American jazz was the third x in Gnattali's y along with erudite and Brazilian popular music, while Villa-Lobos had no time for that particular brand of music. These light and tuneful Concertinos for guitar and orchestra include samba and choros rhythms and bits of popular songs, but as the fine liner notes by Emiliano Giannetti explain, this music
... reveals the impact of jazz in the way it includes pentatonic scales, a particular layering of sound, and marked alternation of orchestra and soloist in the form of short, serried passages in dialogue. 
The balance between solo instrument and orchestra is always problematic when it comes to the guitar. Villa-Lobos thinned out his usually full-bodied orchestra for his concerto, which ended up as the Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra.  Even then guitarists struggle to be heard; there's an oft-told story about Segovia's wife urging Villa-Lobos on the podium during rehearsals to quieten down the players. Gnattali also scores transparently and keeps things tuneful and easy. Concertino is the right designation for this kind of music.  Of course it's easier to deal with balance issues in the recording studio, and the sound engineers have found the perfect place for Marco Salcito's guitar with respect to the orchestra.

It's remarkable that these works aren't better known; this disc includes a premiere on CD (#1) and a world recording premiere (#2). Salcito acquits himself well, and with the strong support of conductor Marcello Bufalini and the Sinfonica Abruzzese provides us with a convincing Exhibit A in deciding whether Gnattali's four works deserve a place with the other masterworks for guitar and orchestra in the classic Spanish style, by Villa-Lobos, Ponce, Rodrigo and Castelnuevo-Tedesco. I'll need to ponder this question for a while!

This disc is due to be released on July 21, 2017. This review has also been posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

An appealing mix of Brazilian piano music


Grace Alves: Keys to Rio

Along with relatively popular pieces by Ernesto Nazareth and Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazilian pianist Grace Alves has done a real service in providing some rarities for piano from Marlos Nobre, Oriano de Almeida and especially Chiquinha Gonzaga, a great composer and social activist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the Gonzaga pieces Gaúcho, Suspiro and Atraente might seem slight, they have real dignity and are very much pioneering efforts in the development of Brazilian popular music.  Oriano de Almeida is from two generations after Villa-Lobos, but his music has the same Paris/Rio, modernism/folklore dynamic as Villa, though his style relies more on American jazz. This appealing music sounds more like Gershwin than his compatriot Villa-Lobos. His Valsa de Paris is really delightful. Marlos Nobre, Brazil's most distinguished living composer, provides two serious but accessible pieces that evoke the life and folklore of the North-East part of Brazil, as Villa-Lobos has often done. Alves plays with grace and power throughout, though without the final level of virtuosity and rhythmic control of Sonia Rubinsky or Nelson Freire. This is a fine first effort; I look forward to future recordings.

This review has also been posted at Music for Several Instruments.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Guitar Concerto from New Zealand

Here's a very fine performance of the Concerto for guitar and small orchestra, 1951. Matthew Marshall plays the guitar, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir William Southgate. Wellington Town Hall, 1993.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Masterpieces revealed


Villa-Lobos Symphonies 8, 9 & 11

Villa-Lobos wrote twelve symphonies, though only eleven of the scores survive, and he wrote them from early in his career (1916) to very late (1957, two years before his death). People have been warning us for a long time not to value Villa-Lobos's symphonies too highly. I know this; I've been one of them. Don't expect too much, was the message, his best works are for the guitar and piano, and in the Choros and the Bachianas Brasileiras series. Now that we're well into the Naxos Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) series, led by Isaac Karabtchevsky, I'm beginning to think this particular piece of conventional wisdom might be wrong. These three symphonies sound familiar, sure, because they sound like Villa-Lobos. But even though I've heard all three a number of times, in the very good CPO series from Carl St. Clair and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart made around the turn of the last century, the music on the new disc sounds fresh and new and really quite amazing.  This series is forcing all of us to sit up and take notice of a whole big chunk of Villa-Lobos's legendarily large output.

In his really excellent liner notes the guitarist and musicologist Fabio Zanon talks about how Villa's mature symphonies suffered because they were different from people's expectations and because of editorial problems with the scores. Though I hear the odd echo of the Choros from Villa's heyday in Paris in the 1920s, and plenty of call-outs to the Bachianas Brasileiras series of the 1930s and early 40s, the 8th, 9th and 11th Symphonies share something of a reboot feeling for the composer.  Here he finally turns his back, more or less, on modernism, while doing the same, more or less, with the folkloric music that made his worldwide reputation. There's a neo-classical (not neo-baroque) sound that goes along with early classical symphonic structures. Zanon sees and hears both Haydn and Mozart in this music, with Beethoven and Schubert lurking around the edges. Having stripped down his orchestral music to the essentials, we're now more aware than ever of how Villa-Lobos has constructed the music. To be sure this is still music written for large orchestras, but there's no Brazilian percussion component, no prepared pianos or violinophones, and no over-the-top Romantic gestures. The first movement of the 9th Symphony is instructive. Villa zips out three themes in quick succession, gives them a quick run-through in his contrapuntal-light machine, and then, when you expect a fair bit of noodling, he winds things up abruptly, with a typical Villa-Lobos flourish. All done in less than four and a half minutes. I must say that I like the concise Villa-Lobos; it makes a nice change from the often over-blown padding of more than a few of his works. This is vivid, direct, lively music without empty gesticulation. With the varnish of score errors and outdated preconceptions removed, these three symphonies emerge as masterpieces.

A copy of this review is at Music for Several Instruments. The disc drops on June 9, 2017.