VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 1, “O Imprevisto.” Symphony No. 2, “Ascensão” / São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor / Naxos 8.573829
This disc is the last of six issued by Naxos of the symphonies of Villa-Lobos, but ironically it is the first I have heard. These are very early works, the first dating from 1916 and the second from 1917, though he revised the latter in 1944. The opening of the first symphony in particular is surprisingly Romantic for those who know him for his more astringent Cantos, Bachianas Brasilieras and string quartets of his later years, but the music shows glimpses of the composer to come. Even in the first movement of the first symphony, which starts out very tonal and lush in orchestration. we soon get oddly moving bass lines, displaced rhythms and out-of-center tonality as the music slowly but surely veers away from its harmonic base and goes into uncharted territory. The second and third movements, highly inventive, veer even further away from strict classical form, bringing with them some elements that one later heard in the Bachianas Brasilieras.
Since this is my first exposure to the conducting style of Karabtchevsky, who has garnered praise for his previous releases in this series from the Gramophone, I’d like to make some comment on his conducting style. He is very good in emphasizing the rhythmic flow of the music, feeling the pulse quite well, though his concept of orchestral sound tends to be on the side of warmth and homogeneity rather than a sharp profile in which some of the more remarkable inner voicings of the music would be more noticeable. Mind you, this is not so much a criticism as an objective description of what is achieved here, and in saying this I’m not entirely sure that what you hear on the record may not be as much, or more, influenced by the microphone placement of engineer Ulrich Schneider. Nowadays, it often seems to me that a soft, lush sound in orchestral recordings is what average listeners like to hear in classical music. We’ve come down a very different path than that which existed in the time of Toscanini, Reiner, Munch, Leibowitz, Rosbaud, Steinberg, Szell and even Bernstein, sloppy and emotionally overwrought as he often was.
Nonetheless, Karabtchevsky is clearly “into” this music and understands both its traditional and radical elements very well. By all reports, Villa-Lobos was a very instinctive composer. He wrote what he liked the way he liked it; first thoughts were usually his preference, with some revision in some works coming later. The last movement of the first symphony is a good case in point; it sounds like music of spontaneous composition, with niceties of detail given more to the orchestration than to the music itself. The multiple themes abut each other but although they are complementary they stand out as separate episodes within the movement. Pounding tympani behind forceful brass and winds provide the finale of this movement, and the symphony.
The second symphony is a bit of an enigma. How much of it was actually written in 1917 and how much comes from the 1944 revision? The opening certainly sounds more modern in feel than the beginning of the first symphony, and Villa-Lobos uses a continuing sequence of ascending figures as part of his theme (the liner notes say that he was following the principles of his teacher, Vincent d’Indy). Yet the development section is more conventional and less off-the-cuff, although Villa-Lobos does reiterate themes and some of the later development is more formal. The second movement, a scherzo, pits playful double-time winds (flutes and clarinets) against a more lyrical theme played by brass and strings. Eventually the atmosphere changes, we get a triplet motif and then a lyrical theme with the triplets underneath as the movement heads towards its conclusion.
The slow movement is darker than that in the first symphony, in fact almost sinister in places, though Villa-Lobos also alternates lyrical themes here. This yin-yang pull of moods continues through the movement; in later passages he even combines these two moods, giving us lyrical music in the top line with moody, melancholy chords underneath it. The ascending motifs continue in this movement, and eventually it ends quite serenely. The final “Allegro,” on the other hand, is a more discursive piece, the music being presented more or less in an alternation of pensive and bitter-sounding music. Eventually the tempo slows down, the music becomes more conventionally Romantic, and the mood turns to melancholy. It almost sounds as if the symphony will to end softly, but then suddenly the allegro tempo returns and we get a very energetic bass line played by the cellos pushing the music forward. Pounding tympani pushes the edgy-sounding strings towards an explosive climax.
This is obviously the music of a young man (aged 29-30) trying to find his way through symphonic form while trying to maintain his own personal voice. By and large, it’s a compromise, but there are some very remarkable passages and excellent moments. You decide if you want to get this one!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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