VILLA-LOBOS Symphonies Nos 3 & 4
Let’s face it, traditional forms – with the notable exception of the string quartet – did not bring out the best in Villa-Lobos. Unconventional or self-made genres, such as the Choros or Bachianas Brasileiras, did. However, that he was not a natural symphonist did not stop him essaying the form repeatedly, 12 times officially, although No 5 – A Paz (‘Peace’, the third panel of the war trilogy with Nos 3 and 4) – was almost certainly never written; if begun, not a note appears to have survived.
The Third (War) and Fourth (Victory), both composed in 1919 to official commissions, illustrate the good and the bad in his symphonic output. Both have a keen sense of drama, spectacle indeed, but the structures of both are untidy, with one movement – ‘The Suffering’ (Lento e marcial) in No 3, the concluding Lento – Allegro in No 4 – significantly larger than its companions, unbalancing the whole. There’s a too-great reliance on stock gestures, too, such as stratospherically high strings to create intensity from the outset that make these half-hour-long works seem overwrought.
These new performances present both symphonies in the best possible light, the playing the most refined these works have had on disc. Karabtchevsky knows his Villa Lobos and clarifies some of the thickly scored textures more convincingly than Carl St Clair in his otherwise fine recordings with the SWR Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. Karabtchevsky’s tempi are also on the quicker side, which generally suits the music better. Under the composer, the playing of the French Radio Orchestra is ragged and, for all Villa-Lobos’s authoritative interpretation, it is not competitive. Karabtchevsky leads the way.