VILLA-LOBOS: Complete String Quartets (17) / Cuarteto Latinoamericano / Dorian Sono Luminus 90904 (6 CDs)
When this set was originally recorded and issued between 1998 and 2002, it received rave reviews from all critics worldwide, and when it was first packaged as a multi-disc set (including a bonus DVD with the musicians talking about their approach to the music and performing one of the quartets) it received even further raves. Since I reviewed this recording via downloads, I’m not certain if this current repackaging includes the bonus DVD—neither the booklet nor the CD box back cover indicate as much—but even without that it is an absolute gem.
One of the problems with Villa-Lobos’ music comes from his own admission that he was “a sentimentalist, and my music is downright sugary.” When you take “sugary” music and add sweetener or other goop to it in the performance, all you end up with is the sugar. But Villa-Lobos also added that he was not an intutive composer, that all of his music is strictly and rigorously composed, and that is the vantage point from which Cuarteto Latinoamericano takes as their aesthetic view of his complete string quartets.
And indeed, one can hear the “sugary” quality striving to break through here and there—note, for instance, the slow movement of the Quartet No. 6 which sounds very much like Irving Berlin’s famous tune Say It With Music—but they tighten the musical line, add a bit of drama, and thus manage to go through the entire series without an undue high-caloric intake. You feel the sweetness of Villa-Lobos’ nature as well as his “writing” the rainforests of Brazil into his scores, but thankfully not too much high-fructose corn syrup.
I say this because a friend of mine once sent me a CD of Villa-Lobos quartets played by a different chamber group, and the effect was sugary, too much so in fact. I would daresay that manty of the alternate recordings out there of different quartets also indulge a bit too much in this approach to the music (while reviewing this set, I listened to yet another quartet playing some of these works and the pace was just too slack and loose), which is why I personally responded so strongly to Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s wide-awake approach. It also helps greatly in those few movements (mostly slow ones, but occasionally scherzos or allegros) where Villa-Lobos seemed to over-write, to overstay his welcome. On three or four occasions I felt that the composer had said all that he had to say and in fact had wrapped up the movement, only to be surprised by his contuing to doodle along for another minute or so. This group of musicians take that in stride and try as much as possible to overcome these few indiscretions, and they do so, in my view, with admirable distinction.
One must also recall that Villa-Lobos was a lifelong fan of J.S. Bach, and thus in addition to his use of fugues and canons in these quartets there are also little quotes and paraphrases from Bach pieces—and not just the ones for violin. Sometimes these Bach allusions appear in completely unexpected places, even in some of his later, more harmonically adventurous quartets. Thus this “sugary” composer also had a backbone of counterpoint and tight structure to fall back on. In the first movement of Quartet No. 17, for instance, I heard a section with Bach-like counterpoint followed almost immediately by a theme clearly based on Eubie Blake’s I’m Just Wild About Harry!
Like many composers of his generation, Villa-Lobos’ style became somewhat modernized as time went on, but he never quite succumbed to a slavish imiation of Stravinsky or Bartók; he always remained true to himself. Interestingly, most of these quartets have very individual personalities, although the first three as a group seemed the closest in style to one another. I was particularly struck, and I think you will too, by the highly rhythmic and wildly imaginative Quartet No. 5, which has to be my personal favorite. Not a wasted note or gesture in this brilliant piece, and plenty of humor as well as a bit of playing cat-and-mouse with the listener’s attention! I found this specific quartet a true delight from beginning to end. And of course there are other quartets, as well as other movements within other quartets, where one gets the same feeling.
Part of the secret to Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s performance style is their use of a fast, tight vibrato, creating a bright shimmer and not a loose “throb.” This keeps the “sentimental” moments from becoming mawkish or having too much heart-on-the-sleeve emotion. Their consistency of style also leads into their consistency of expression; note, for instance, the way the cellist maintains a strict, almost bouncing rhythm even within the slow movements. This may not sound like much, but it works wonders in tightening the structure and keeping the music from slackening.
Another wonderful quality here is the sound: just a hint of natural room reverb, none of the gooped-up “swimming in echo” sound that destroys so many modern classical recordings. All in all, this is one of those sets that set a standard for performance in this music and I think will remain a standard as time goes on.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley