The Best from Brazil's Fiercly Nationalistic Composer
Give it up for the composer who is not ashamed of his homeland. The inventive and often misunderstood Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) took an almost argumentative stand, in interviews, to answer criticism that he was merely a repurposer of folk songs. "Yes, I'm Brazilian—very Brazilian," he was once quoted as saying. "In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don't put a gag on the tropical exuberance of our forests and our skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write."
The breathtaking beauty of Brazil does define Villa-Lobos—it's there in his active streams of melody and graceful, poignant intervallic leaps. Like Bartók, Villa-Lobos did his share of musicological digging; he spent time in the Amazon rain forests with his guitar, learning the folk songs of various remote tribes. Some of what he brought back has the feeling of a pastiche, slides taken on vacation. But not these works, which have become his signature. The Bachianas—essays for orchestra, voice, and various solo instruments that Villa-Lobos wrote over many years—attempt to pour the endlessly warm, flowing character of Brazil into a sturdy Bach-style structure.
There's nothing quite like the Bachianas in the orchestral repertoire. Though Villa-Lobos starts with folk melodies, he immediately carries them into the dark forest of his imagination, where they sprout oversized counterlines and unlikely melodic rejoinders. These wandering "subthemes" are often as lyrical as the original source material. Through them Villa-Lobos teases out ideas and emotions lurking in the background, transforming plain folk themes into the music equivalent of three-dimensional chess.
It can take several encounters with the Bachianas before all of the rich layers and seemingly slight (but actually huge) inventions clarify. Certain recordings—like those featuring legendary Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles on this collection—can speed that process. This is a restrained reading, with tropical exuberance muted just a bit. That allows the composer's subtle undercurrents, which intertwine pleasure and misery in that quintessentially Brazilian way, to shine through.
Released: 1958, EMI
Key Tracks: Bachianas Nos. 2, 5, 9.
Another Interpretation: Alma Brasileira: Music of Villa-Lobos, Renée Fleming, New World Symphony (Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Guitar Concerto, Julian Bream, London Symphony Orchestra (André Previn, cond.).
Next Stop: Cello Trio: Tango Brasileiro
After That: Wayne Shorter: Alegria
Book Page: 834