Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras

  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 1
  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 5
  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 7
  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 1
  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 5
  • Bachianas brasileiras No. 7

The Villa-Lobos centenary year has gots off to an early start with six of the nine Bachianas Brasileiras he wrote between 1930 and 1945: ostensibly intended as fusions between the spirit of Bach (for whom he had a deep veneration) and the soul of his native Brazil—an integration much mentioned by commentators but only intermittently perceptible, and heavily weighted towards the exotic—they vary greatly in the forces demanded, from solo piano (No. 4) to large orchestra (No. 7). The sheer exuberance of his highly individual invention is so vast that his ideas are inevitably uneven in quality; but he is rarely arid or boring.
Welcome as is this year's first batch of his music, however, one cannot suspend critical judgements. The best loved of this series, Nos. 5, for soprano and eight cellos, is so haunting that everyone, it seems, wants to have a go at it; but unfortunately it has to be said that there has never yet been a wholly satisfactory recording of it. Bidu Sayao's poorly recorded early version was of the first movement only (Philips mono ABE10095, 2/59—nla), as was Vishnevskaya's uncomprehending performance (Chant du Monde CD 278 644, 4/85); the constantly invoked de los Angeles 1958 EMI recording, with the composer conducting, though seductively sung, is marred by a false entry by her and extremely untidy ensemble by the cellos. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, on Decca recently, took the Aria too slowly and sentimentally, failed to shape its central section and made nothing of the words; and her darting fioriture in the Cansa were less than exact. The French soubrette-ish quality of Mady Mesple's voice is not best suited to style, and though her Aria is attractive, she seems distinctly cautious, rather than rapturous, in the Dansa. Barbra Hendricks makes a lovely sound in the vocalise section, but Batiz takes the Dansa too fast to allow her to articulate clearly—and why does he emphasize the bass line so heavily at the outset of the work, at the expense of the rhythmic pizzicato? None of these, I'm afraid, is a match for the bright, birdlike Dansa, every note beautifully placed, of Marni Nixon on an old mono Capital conducted by Felix Slatkin (P8484, 12/59—nla)—even though her Portuguese is somewhat Anglo-Saxon.
The Capolongo disc presents the same selection of Bachianas Brasileiras as the de los Angeles/Villa-Lobos record already mentioned. No. 6, a kind of extended two-part invention with bewilderingly complex changes of rhythmic values in its second movement, goes well until 15 bars from the end, when the two players get badly out of step in their imitative figures. In No. 2 Capolongo produces far more sensitive playing, and infinitely better-judged dynamics, than the composer in his rough-and-ready performance, and he makes the most of the broad tune of the Aria; but he has problems with the finale, the famous and endearingly onomatopoeic ''Little train'', where the orchestra lacks finesse and the player of the chocalhos (gourds), apparently failing to watch the conductor, goes very wrong with what should be steady offbeats against the pounding train rhythm. By far the most successful performance on this disc is of No. 9, whose long fugue (in 11/8 time) has lightness and ease in syncopation which were conspicously lacking in the composer's laborious reading (in which, incidentally, two short passages were repeated, though not so marked in the score—I've never been sure whether this was deliberate or was merely something that happened in the editing). The Orchestre de Paris acquit themselves with deftness and warm tone here; but someone forgot to tell the sleeve-commentator that the string orchestra version was being used, not the original for eight-part chorus!
Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 1 and 7, on the Batiz disc, were recorded at different times and in different venues; and there is also disparity between the standard of playing of the two works. As compared with the splendid and subtle performance of No. 1 by the Concert Arts Ensemble (on the Capitol LP already referred to), Batiz makes too much of a meal of the romantic Modinha—perhaps Villa-Lobos's loveliest single movement—and despit some warm-hearted and accomplished playing by the eight cellos of the RPO there are a few small lapses in unanimity of intonation; balance is not always ideal—the fourth cello is given exaggerated prominence in the opening chords, and two bars after figure 3 cello six, whose solo is marked ff, is too faint (much softer than the mf a few bars later); and the resonant acoustic militates against clarity in the animated fugue, in which Villa-Lobos takes pleasure in such traditional devices as stretto and augmentation. (What is the authority, by the way, for changing F sharp to F natural in the first chord of bar 21 of the Modinha and again five 5 bars before the end? This jars and sounds illogical—the harmony is surely an ordinary minot ninth?) The one unequivocal success of this disc is the lengthy and seldom heard No. 7, of which there has previously been no good recording (that by the composer—Columbia mono 33CX1648, 6/59, nla—was terribly mushy and turgid). This is one of Villa-Lobos's major works, with a pastoral first movement that ends in grandiose fashion, a Quadrille of carnival gaiety, a Toccata which vividly suggests the rival challengers of a desafio (an improvised singing competition), and ending with a serious and deeply impressive fugue that starts serenely and builds up majestically. With its overtones of the Musical Offering, it comes closer to the much-vaunted reunion des gouts than any other of the Bachianas Brasileiras.'

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