Though the Ano Villa-Lobos was marked by many adventurous Villa-Lobos concert programs around the world, there weren't that many new recordings released with unfamiliar repertoire in 2009. Rather, the keynote for Villa-Lobos on disc in 2009 was consolidation. This has resulted in an embarrassment of bargain discs, and it's now much easier to build something approaching a complete Villa-Lobos collection. It's now also easier to judge Villa-Lobos's greatness as a composer of orchestral and chamber music.
The most important recordings of 2008 were the three discs of the Complete Choros on BIS, with John Neschling conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Also from BIS, and only slightly less important, were the three discs of the Complete Bachianas Brasileiras with Robert Minczuk which were released in 2005-7. So it's great to get these six discs, plus a seventh with the complete Guitar Works played by the excellent Fabio Zanon, packaged together at a bargain price ($65 from Amazon.com, for example). It's now clear that Villa's greatest cycle was the Choros, even though the Bachianas Brasileiras and Guitar Works remain the most popular. Neschling's versions easily top the available recordings.
Two other compilations make Villa-Lobos collecting easier and less expensive, and in these discs as well you need not make any compromises when it comes to musicianship, authenticity, engineering, or packaging.
The first is the Complete String Quartets from Dorian, featuring the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. At $39.99 from Amazon.com this is an even greater bargain than the BIS set. It includes the six discs recorded from 1995 to 2001, along with a bargain DVD that includes interviews with the members of the group and a performance of the First Quartet. I place the Cuarteto Latinoamericano's recordings at the top of a crowded field of excellent CDs in these great works.
The second is yet another set of 7 CDs. This one comes from cpo: the Complete Symphonies, recorded in 1997-2000 by Carl St. Clair and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. This ground-breaking set included world recording premieres of Symphonies 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 11, & 12. I would place all 11 of the symphonies (the score to #5 is lost) at the top, or close to the top, of available recordings. Unlike the other two sets, though, this music doesn't represent Villa-Lobos's greatest music. Still, each time I listen to these still-unfamiliar works I find something new and interesting, and I'm starting to really appreciate particular symphonies: the neo-classical no. 8, or the uncharacteristically well-structured no. 4.
Just before I posted this, I came across a new set of CDs on Amazon.com: all 8 of Sonia Rubinsky's Complete Piano Music discs on Naxos. Here's another chance to have very well-played, well-engineered, well-presented versions of an important chunk of Villa's music. In this case we're talking about a very important chunk: perhaps as important as the String Quartets or the Bachianas Brasileiras. Sonia Rubinsky (and another pianist who recorded the complete works, the late Anna Stella Schic) give us a chance to hear all of Villa's piano music. The new set (US$59.99) is due to be released on Feburary 23, 2010.