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Chamber and Choral


Release Date 1992

Catalogue No. LNT102

Music by:

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Performed by:

BBC Singers
Odaline de la Martínez (conductor)

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Terry Barfoot, MUSICWEB


Villa-Lobos is an enterprising, intriguing and entertaining composer, and it is always worth exploring his repertoire beyond the handful of pieces which have infiltrated the international repertory.

This enterprising and highly appealing disc confirms all this and more. It is entitled Chamber and Choral Music, and this rather odd combination is indeed what the programme contains. For example, the Quatuor of 1921 is really no such thing, since it is scored for the unusual combination of flute, alto saxophone, celesta, harp and female voices. But no matter, since the sound-world (as elsewhere on the disc) is itself full of interest, the ensemble working with the utmost imagination as the musical ideas develop.

Villa-Lobos was always inclined to make nationalist ideas the focus of his music, and the various Chôros are further examples of this. The chôro is 'a popular urban type of music used by street serenaders in Rio de Janeiro'. But the composer himself was even more specific, claiming the music as 'representing a new form of musical composition, synthesising different kinds of Brazilian Indian and folk music, having as their principal elements rhythm and all kinds of typical folk melody that appear accidentally from time to time, always transformed by the personality of the composer'. These thoughts are put to the proof in two highly imaginative pieces featured here: the Two Chôros Bis of 1928, scored only for violin and cello, and the Chôros No. 7 composed four years previously.

The former employs just the violin and the cello, creating some remarkable sonorities and rivals Ravel's famous Duo as a masterpiece in this unlikely genre. The latter is more diversely scored, with flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, violin, cello and tam-tam. And it is every inch as entertaining as that extraordinary instrumentation would indicate; nor is it merely a series of effects. Likewise the early Sextet (flute, oboe, saxophone, celesta, harp and guitar), from 1917, reveals the composer's obsession with unusual sonorities and effective combinations of instruments. In all this music Odaline de la Martínez secures distinguished playing from her chamber ensemble, Lontano.

Probably the best known of Villa-Lobos's compositions are the Bachianas brasileiras, but even these pieces are not so familiar, particularly when they exist, as does No. 9 in the series, in various different versions. The original score of 1945 was for an 'orchestra' of wordless voices, but the music was later rescored for strings. It is the original version which is found here, performed with consummate skill by the BBC Singers. In both the slow-moving, mysterious 'Prelude' and the lively succeeding 'Fugue', the music makes an hypnotic effect, aided by an atmospheric recording and the helpful acoustic of St Silas Church, Kentish Town. With helpful booklet notes to introduce this unfamiliar music, this CD does Villa-Lobos a real service.

Peter Wells, MUSICWEB

Given that he was a hugely prolific composer, writing at that point of the twentieth century before rampant modernism began to scare audiences away, and that his output covers almost every conceivable genre and style, it is surprising that Heitor Villa-Lobos should not be more of a household name than he is. The famous Bachianas brasilieras No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos is the only work to have become 'Classic FM' recognisable.

Fortunately, this excellent disc of chamber music performed by the BBC Singers and the flexible instrumental group Lontano opts for a performance of the rather more interesting Bachianas brasilieras No. 9, written in 1945. This choral showpiece really exposes the links that Villa-Lobos was making between the musical idioms of his native Brazil and the structural and intellectual precepts of the music of his hero, Bach.

The 'Fugue' in particular is a tightly-wrought compositional exercise, but the Brazilian rhythmic flavours permeate the whole. The BBC Singers, under the direction of Odaline de la Martínez, a great champion of Latin and South American classical music, sing this with the tightness of ensemble and the easy virtuosity that one would expect from such a professional group. The result is instantly engaging, and yet not without intellectual stimulation. A good combination. The only other work on this disc to make any use of voices is the Quatuor from 1921. This is a fascinating work scored for flute, alto saxophone, celesta, harp and female voices (not really a quartet at all then). This is about as far in terms of timbre as it can get from the traditional quartet of strings and the performers here utilise this wonderfully colourful palette well.

The female voices, as in the famous Bachianas brasilieras No. 5, are entirely without words; the voice used as a pure instrument. The voices, together with the celesta and the harp give a strangely otherworldly quality and the effect is wonderful. The same ideas are apparent in the opening Sexteto místico composed in 1917. While this is a most engaging work full of impressionist colours and harmonies, the mystic effect is not as fully worked out as in Quatuor. The composition occupies more of the sound world of Ravel, as indeed do the Two Chôros Bis. This work for violin and cello makes much use of Ravel-esque rhythmic, almost percussive, string writing. The composition is so skilful that most of the piece sounds like it is for string quartet rather than merely duo.

Lontano is a flexible group of highly skilled musicians and their performances on this disc are both evocative and memorable. The programming is interesting and varied and bears repeated listening. There is in Villa-Lobos something at the same time familiar and different. His music really does deserve to be better known and more widely appreciated. This disc is a good place to start.

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