Villa-Lobos Piano Concertos

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Villa-Lobos Piano Concertos

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5

Villa-Lobos had already written several works for concertante piano and orchestra (notably No. 11 of the Choros and No. 3 of the Bachianas Brasileiras) before deciding, at the age of 58, to compose a piano concerto proper. 'Proper' is, of course, a relative term in speaking of so uninhibited and unpredictable a composer; and anyone looking for an orthodox concerto type will be barking up the wrong tree. True, he kept to the same overall pattern in all five of his piano concertos—four movements, with the solo cadenza (and enormously long that often is, particularly in No. 1) in the third; but though there are occasional attempts at unification by the reprise of themes, his structural procedures are essentially episodic, with constant abrupt, sometimes bewildering, changes of mood, character, rhythm and sonority, and with climaxes that burst out as unexpectedly as volcanic eruptions. This kaleidoscopic construction is colourful, often fascinating, and the sheer prodigality of his invention and his colossal energy, with extravagant textures and instrumentation, are extremely striking; but after a while, as with the gambols of a high-spirited puppy, one can't help wishing for more orderliness and less strenuous exuberance.
To those coming new to Villa-Lobos, let me suggest starting with the Fourth Concerto, which is less unruly than the others and contains more of the broad lyrical melodies (that in the finale is of distinctly Brazilian cast) which he could write when so inclined—there is also an almost Rachmaninovian one nearly 6'00'' into the first movement of the sprawling First Concerto, and an expressive cor anglais (and then cello) theme in the finale of No. 2. But for the most part this music is full of extrovert vivacity, grandiose declamation and, frequently, novel sonorities, such as those at the mysterious start of the Andante in No. 1, whose atmosphere of unearthly high strings suggesting ''the air of another planet'' is then dispelled by interjections of rude barks from the brass. It is perhaps in Villa-Lobos's quieter moments, such as the poetic musing on an Amerindian song in the Lento of No. 2, that he is most appealing: otherwise he tends to be overwhelming unless taken in small doses. Cristina Ortiz throws herself with zest into the hair-raising difficulties and cascades of notes of his piano writing and carries everything off with the right kind of imperious swagger, and the RPO respond manfully to the scores' often exorbitant technical demands (how obviously they enjoy the shattering ending of No. 2!). A set that can be warmly recommended to those with strong constitutions.'

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