Forest of the Amazon

August 1996
Karamano ture! Aue!
Karamatana munuture!
Tanapana mutue purun!
Kaue tupuni calore, calore!

 - from the Overture to Floresta do Amazonas, words by Dora Vasconcelos, in an imaginary Amazonian language invented by Vasconcelos, but based on the sounds of an actual dialect

This month's CD is another re-issue: Floresta do Amazonas (Forest of the Amazon,) the orchestral suite arranged by Villa-Lobos from the music for the MGM film Green Mansions. The CD is one of the first in a rather odd new series from EMI called Inspiration, whose aim is to "reflect the diversity of 'classical' music found in various parts of the world." The first releases in the series include ragas, koto melodies, electronic music and Anatolian folk tunes, along with one of the most important of Villa-Lobos' own recordings of one of his final works.
The recording was made in Villa-Lobos' last year, 1959, at the Manhattan Towers Hotel in New York. The music was written for the film in 1958, or rather, Villa Lobos wrote music "evoking themes and situations" from the W.H. Hudson novel that the film was (fairly loosely) based upon. This music had rather a rough ride on its way through the studio system of Hollywood, and Villa-Lobos was not pleased with its adaptation for the screen. In 1959 he made a concert-suite arrangement, and recorded it in the same year.
June's CD of the Month was the 6-CD set of EMI recordings with Villa-Lobos conducting the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise. That set constitutes an amazing legacy of orchestral music of great authenticity, and historical and musical interest. It is not of great merit in terms of sound, by today's standards, and the quality of the orchestral playing has been criticized. This CD is a welcome addition to this great legacy of recorded music. Both the playing of the orchestra (the Symphony of the Air and Chorus) and the sound (in a 1996 digital re-mastering at Abbey Road Studios) are of a higher level than the Paris recordings.
This recording is significant as a historical document not only because the composer was at the podium. The important soprano part is sung by the legendary Bidu Sayão, the greatest of all Brazilian singers. Sayão's career as a concert singer spanned from 1925 to 1958, corresponding to the period of Villa-Lobos' career as a world-class composer. For this recording, Sayão came out of retirement, following her farewell performances in Rio de Janeiro in 1958. Sayão was very much identified with the music of Villa-Lobos throughout her career, and sang many important parts, especially the Aria of the Bachianas Brasileira #5.
Villa-Lobos re-used material from Floresta do Amazonas in four songs, which he arranged in 1959. Roberta Alexander sings these songs beautifully, with Alfred Heller at the piano, in a 1994 CD from Etcetera (KTC 1165.) Alfred Heller has also arranged these four songs for flute, English horn, clarinet, bassoon and piano; they appear on the 1992 Etcetera CD KTC 1144.
A recent recording of Floresta do Amazonas is conducted by (once again) Alfred Heller, conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra and the with Renee Fleming, soprano. The 1995 CD (CONSONANCE 81-0012) was given a very positive review by William Zagorski in Fanfare, March/April 1996, p. 314-5. Heller, who was a close friend and associate of Villa-Lobos during the composer's last years, knows this music very well. Indeed, he helped Villa-Lobos prepare Bidu Sayão for the 1959 recording. Heller's CD is the only available one to use the uncut score; the version at Villa-Lobos conducted is heavily cut.
Tarde Azul (Blue Dusk) is one of the world's great love songs. Besides a lovely long melody, the song contains some of Villa Lobos' most subtle orchestral effects: Dora Vasconcelos' poetry is perfectly matched by Villa Lobos' strings, and especially by his very effective, hyper-romantic guitar lines.
Meu pobre coração
Ansela sempre a suplicar:
Amor, meu amor!
ends the song's lyrics; in Margaret Jull Costa's translation:
My poor heart
yearns and cries out always:
love, my love!
This is a highlight of this recording: a lifetime of singing the great tragic heroines in the world's opera houses is evident in Bidu Sayão's rendering of these lines. After she is finished, Villa Lobos provides one of his greatest touches of inspiration: horns, xylophone, flutes, quiet until the very end, provide an orchestral counterpoint of yearning and crying.