Chamber Music of Villa-Lobos

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VILLA-LOBOS: String Trio. Duet for Violin & Viola. Assobio a jato for Flute & Cello. Quinteto Instrumental for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello & Harp / Carlo Lazari, vln; Benjamin Bernstein, vla; Marianna Sinagra, cel; Giorgio Di Giorgi, fl; Nicoletta Sanzin, harp / Urania LDV 14072

Urania, a label that generally specializes in very high quality reissues of older recordings, here gives us a surprise: a collection of rarely recorded chamber works by Heitor Villa-Lobos played by a quintet of little-known Italian musicians. Unfortunately, Naxos did not provide a booklet with this album for download (which happens occasionally), so I can’t tell you who they are, but I assure you that they are all really outstanding musicians. Not only do they play with brio and bright timbres, but they understand Villa-Lobos’ musical idiom and thus make each and every note on this recording sound electric and alive.

I’ve always loved Villa-Lobos’ music because he skirted around tonality without going so far out on a limb that he lost the average classical listener, and these excellent works are no exception. Every note and phrase contributes to the ongoing musical discourse, and what fascinated me most about the opening String Trio was how the first movement kept morphing and changing at an “Allegro” tempo but with the cello obstinately playing a string of sustained notes which gave the music a sort of “slow drag” feel to it…until the coda, in which everyone seems to be racing everyone else to the finish line. In the slow second movement, there’s a nice interplay between the violin and viola in their upper ranges while the cello takes a solo before a long pause, after which the three instruments play together in a chordal style for a bit. The “Scherzo” seems to be using a Latino rhythm but with an irregular meter, including several tempo and harmonic shifts along the way. It’s quite an amazing piece.

The violinist and violist carry over their enthusiastic performance style into the Duo as well. Having never heard these pieces before, however, I began to wonder if Villa-Lobos really wanted every note and phrase played as if they were on pins and needles. On the other hand, he was Brazilian and a very emotional person by all accounts, so this approach is probably quite appropriate. In the slow second movement, the composer calls for the violinist to play strange out-of-tonality chords with muted strings retuned while the viola plays a bitonal little melody. It’s a very strange effect that almost makes it sound as if three strings are playing. In the third and final movement, they play against each other in opposing rhythms.

Next up is his unusual flute-cello duo, and this, too is played with good energy and a buoyant rhythm. In addition, Villa-Lobos created more interesting rhythmic interplay and unusual harmonic clashes.

In the Quintet we bring all four of these musicians together along with harpist Nicoletta Sanzin. Even in a piece such as this, which when you think of it would probably evoke nice, pretty music from most composers (after all, it is flute, harp and strings), Villa-Lobos pushes the envelope, if perhaps not as much as in the preceding works. Nonetheless, its structure is unusual and he keeps your attention by using the flute here as he might have used a wind section in a chamber symphony.

This was quite a pleasant surprise for me, and I think it will be for you, too. Excellent music, seldom heard in concert, played brilliantly—and the sonics are close-up, bright and clear. A real gem!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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