Villa-Lobos’ Complete Symphonies

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VILLA-LOBOS: Symphonies 1-4, 6-12. Uirapuru. Mandu-Çarará / São Paolo Symphony Orch., Choir & Children’s Choir; Isaac Karabtchevsky / Naxos 8.506039

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote 12 symphonies between 1916 and 1957, of which the fifth is lost. Unlike his series of Bachianas Brasilieros or his pieces titled Coros, they have never been terribly popular, mostly because they do not for the most part echo indigenous Brazilian music.

Yet they are very effective pieces nonetheless. Here they are played by a Brazilian orchestra and, although conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky has a Russian name, he was born and raised in that country as well. Before getting into a description of the works themselves, I should point out that Karabtchevsky conducts some of this music in a very legato style which somewhat dulls the impact of the most dramatic passages (think of Barbirolli as an example) but otherwise does a very fine job with them.

Since I already reviewed Symphonies 1 & 2 here on this blog, I will not be covering those. So we start with the interesting duo of Symphonies No. 3, “War,” and 4, “Victory.” These were commissioned as a pair by the Brazilian government shortly after the end of World War I to honor the lives of those who died in battle. Surprisingly, the Third Symphony is not as violent as one might expect, surely not as much as “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets or, perhaps more appropriately, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In fact, there are numerous cheery passages in this symphony that are interrupted by trumpet fanfares and occasionally (but not often) a rhythm that simulates the tramping of boots. As mentioned above, Karabtchevsky softens the impact of these passages by insisting on a legato style throughout, but for the most part the performance is good although Carl St. Clair has recorded a much finer one with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra on CPO.

Oddly enough, the “Victory” Symphony opens with even more martial-type music than “War,” and here Karabtchevsky’s conducting is just fine, biting and dramatic. But by and large, Villa-Lobos’ first four symphonies have weaknesses in structure and conventional tonal harmony that I find uninviting.

I was much more excited by the Sixth Symphony. Subtitled “On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil,” this is much more in the composer’s later, more complex and interesting style, with a few spiky harmonies here and there and the cross-rhythms for which Villa-Lobos became internationally famous. And the seventh symphony, which has no subtitle, is the most interesting so far in the series. Written in 1945, a year after the sixth, it was composed for  competition sponsored by the Detroit Symphony, and although the composer considered it one of his finest works (and it is) it was not awarded any prize. Although it is not formally subtitled, the program notes written for the premiere described it as “Odyssey of Peace,” its four movements subtitled “Prologue,” “Contrasts,” “Tragedy” and “Epilogue,” yet these titles do not seem appropriately descriptive of the music and they do not appear in either the manuscript or the finished score. This is also the first, and probably only, symphony to include a part for the Novachord, an electronic piano manufactured by the Hammond company between 1939 and 1942 which has since sunk without a trace. (British jazz pianist Arthur Young played one in the nonet known as “Hatchett’s Swingtette” with Stéphane Grappelli on jazz violin during the period 1939-1942.) The world’s first electronic synthesizer, the Novachord used a process known as “subtractive synthesis” to produce its tones, in which partials of an audio signal (often one rich in harmonics) are attenuated by a filter to alter the timbre of the sound. It almost sounds like an electronic harmonium, and if you listen carefully you can hear its sound sneaking through the huge massed orchestra.

The high level of creativity continues in the Eighth Symphony, written in 1950. Here, Villa-Lobos plays brilliant with contrasting and cross-rhythms in a manner most inspired, and Karabtchevsky’s performance is a fine one.

The Tenth Symphony, subtitled “Amerindia,” is a huge, sprawling work lasting 73 minutes which includes a chorus and vocal soloists. It’s a bit pretentious metaphysically, and in style a bit of a throwback to his more Romantic symphonies of the late 1910s, but it certainly has its moments. The Eleventh, by contrast, is a taut, more modern-sounding work, one of the composer’s finest. Commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Villa-Lobos dedicated it to Serge Koussevitzky and his wife Natalie. Charles Munch conducted the premiere, and it was such a modern, daring work that it met with mixed reviews. Frankly, the critics were entirely unprepared for such a daring work, using several Stravinsky-like elements, preferring (as the Brazilians did) his more folk-influenced scores. His last symphony, the Twelfth, dates from 1957 when he was 70 years old. This time, the critics seemed more prepared for what they heard, and the work was praised by critics for both the Washington Post and New York Times. The filler works are interesting but somewhat slight.

This, then, is a good set of Villa-Lobos’ symphonies. If you don’t already have Carl St. Clair’s set with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony on CPO, you might want to investigate acquiring it. If your preference in performing style, even for the late symphonies, is for a more legato approach, then Karabtchevsky is your man.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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