Alma Brasileira - Music of Villa-Lobos - New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

March 1997 

"Alma Brasileira - Music of Villa-Lobos" - Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the New World Symphony, in Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4, no. 5 (with Renee Fleming, soprano,) no. 7 and no. 9. Also, with the BBC Singers, Choros no. 10. RCA Red Seal 09026-68538-2 (U.S.) 09026-68538-2 (Europe.)

Recorded in Florida in 1996, and released in January, 1997, this new CD is a relatively rare beast: a Villa-Lobos CD from a mainstream company, with the highest production values and the fullest marketing savvy brought to bear. Even though the CD cover, shot at Parrot Jungle and Gardens in Miami, makes one think more of Miami Vice than Amazonia, it is some kind of breakthrough for the music of Villa-Lobos that the charisma of Michael Tilson Thomas is being brought into play. 
The musical charisma is evident throughout the disk. MTT (as Tilson Thomas is referred to by the BMG marketing machine - visit Club MTT on the BMG website) coaxes amazing sounds from the young musicians of the New World Symphony - finer playing than I have heard from all but a very few orchestras in this repertoire. 
The pieces chosen for this CD represent Villa-Lobos' finest orchestral music. The fourth Bachianas Brasileiras was written in 1930 for solo piano, and only orchestrated ten years later. The formal, Baroque nature of the first movement "Prelude" is more apparent in the piano version. A good performance like that that of Ricardo Peres (Novadisc) builds carefully by the end of the Prelude to a kind of apotheosis. Villa-Lobos the conductor goes for this same kind of transformation in his Pathe Marconi recording with the National Radio Orchestra of Paris (released by EMI France on 6 CDs as Villa-Lobos par lui-meme,) but just misses it on the side of bathos, sometimes sounding heavy and murky, with the heavy, murky sound making things worse. 
MTT delivers a light, clear Prelude with an obvious Bachian pedigree. One is tempted to call it a kind of "original-instruments" Bachianas Brasileiras. This style is helped along by leaving out the repeats. MTT doesn't face the burden of an 8-1/2 minute opening movement that in the Paris performance sounds ponderous, and we are left with four delightful neo-classical minutes. 

Araponga Call
Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4
2nd movement (1st part)
The second movement has an important actor: a bird called the Araponga 1 (the Bearded Bellbird - Procnias averano), whose voice can be heard in the forests of the Sertao, the bleak landscape of the Northeast of Brazil. When Ricardo Peres first played this movement for me, he exaggerated the percussive nature of the bird's call. I remember being very impressed with how musical Villa-Lobos could make from something so "noise"-like. Villa-Lobos underplays the Araponga's call to bring out rich, lush sounds of the orchestra. MTT strikes a perfect balance, making the orchestral transcription sound more plausible. The balance is possible because his virtuoso players can make orchestral colour seem at the same time vivid and subtle. In this recording you can see and hear the araponga in its natural habitat. 
Immediately apparent in the third movement are Villa-Lobos' patented folkoric sources, including a probably-authentic folk song. The mix includes all the elements of modern Brazilian music: Portuguese melodies, African and Indian themes and rhythms and the urban dance music Villa- Lobos had been exploring during the 1920's in his series of Choros. Indeed, this music represents a kind of proto-MPB (Música popular brasileira,) as Villa-Lobos sets the stage for such composers as Antonio Carlos Jobim (who had just been born - 1927 - in Rio de Janeiro when Villa-Lobos wrote this music.) 

"...a kind of jazz-age cocktail..."

Villa-Lobos had just returned, though, from seven years in Paris. One can also see this movement as a kind of jazz-age cocktail - the same kind of concoction being served up at the time by such composers as Stravinsky and Milhaud. The French players under Villa-Lobos find this music more congenial and he plays up the ironic side of the music. MTT gets a more earthy sound from his players. Both sound delightful. This is delightful music, with the orchestral version sounding completely convincing.2
The final movement is a Miudinho - a folk-dance of "tiny steps." Eero Tarasti talks about this samba-like dance: 
    "...women danced it with their upper body all but motionless and with almost unnoticeably quick movements of the feet in a fast and always even rhythm." (Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the life and works, p. 205.)

The folk rhythms of this dance are brought out beautifully, fast and always even, by MTT's young instrumentalists.

Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 has the perfection of a dream and the uncanniness of a nightmare. Comparing it to a hole-in-one or a grand-slam home-run doesn't belittle Villa-Lobos' achievement as an artist. Melodies like the great, long main theme of the Cantilena are mysteries to us all. I'm sure it came to Villa-Lobos in a way that was somehow different from the rest of his music, in a way that puzzled him for the rest of his life. 
Bidu Sayao CD cover
How the sopranos must love to sing this music! Renee Fleming, who has fairly recently completed recording late Villa-Lobos (Forest of the Amazon, with Alfred Heller on a very well-received Consonance disk,) is in good voice. The featured cellos of the New World Symphony, especially soloist Kenneth Freudigman, are in good voice as well. On the EMI recording soprano Victoria de Los Angelos is let down by a thin recording, but underneath you can hear the passion of a great dramatic singer. Each of these recordings, along with the famous Bidu Sayao version recently re-released on Sony (and pictured to the left,) deserves a special place in the library of the Villa-Lobos lover. 
Bachianas Brasileiras no. 7, written in 1942, has some Pomp and Circumstance to go along with Villa-Lobos' usual blend of African, Portuguese and native tunes and rhythms. A decade of service as superintendent of music for Brazil's school system placed Villa-Lobos firmly in his country after a long artistic exile in Paris. This and the influence of the new, special nationalism that came with the regime of President Vargas brought an almost Elgarian tone to his latest Bachianas Brasileiras. David Wright, who provides the excellent and informative notes to the new RCA disk, brings up the case of Dvorak in this context, as does Eero Tarasti , in Heitor Villa-Lobos: his life and works (p. 212.) Tarasti adds Brahm's Viennese works and the historical orchestral suites of Sibelius. 
The perils of this music are a slight tendency towards bombast and banality. The word "banality" comes up quite often in negative reviews of Villa-Lobos' works, especially reviews of new music he wrote in Europe in the 1950s. I've come to think of it as the "B" word, and wonder when it springs to mind if the fault is Villa-Lobos' or the interpreter's, or if I'm missing some layer of irony. 
In this case, MTT again gets around the problem by emphasizing the Bach in Bachianas Brasileiras, its neo-classical architecture. There are plenty of opportunities for excitement, for exotic sounds and orchestral colour. This is neither oil-painting with lots of varnish nor water-colours. Perhaps stained-glass with the brightest of dyes, and the strong Brazilian sunshine streaming through. 
Bachianas Brasileiras no. 9, though it lasts only 9 or 10 minutes, is an amazing work of art, a seminal example of the greatness of Villa-Lobos. It takes as its theme memory, overlaying the mysterious prelude - "Vagaroso e mistico" - with reminiscences of earlier Bachianas. Villa-Lobos had begun by 1945 his pattern of world-travelling in which he would remain until he returned home finally to die, in Rio in 1959. Nostalgia for Brazil was always a major factor when Villa-Lobos worked on new music in Paris or New York. There are memories as well of the music of Bach, though well-sublimated, and of the earlier masters Villa-Lobos loved (Victoria comes to mind.) The RCA disk includes Bachianas Brasileiras no. 9 in its string orchestra version, not, as the liner notes state, in the version for strings and wordless chorus. It would have been interesting to have heard the BBC singers in this piece, but here they're not just wordless but mike-less. In any case, MTT and his strings bring such great concentration to the piece it's hard to imagine anything could be missing.
Another masterpiece finishes the disk: the Choros no. 10 of 1926-1928. A strongly Indianist work - it includes quotations from actual authentic Indian songs - this Choros has long been praised as one of the master's greatest orchestral works. It's an exciting amalgamation of rhythm, melody and noise.  The orchestral forces required are amazing: 
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 timpani, tam-tam, tambourine, tambor, caxambu, 2 puitas, surdo drums, large and small reco-reco, chocalhos de metal e de madeira, piano, harp, strings and mixed chorus.
MTT marshalls these forces and produces a taut and totally-convincing piece. 
Tilson Thomas's recording of the Choros involves techniques that are relatively rare in the world of classical recordings. Joshua Kosman quotes Tilson Thomas in an article about MTT in the San Francisco Examiner
    "Thomas ... argues that the existing studio technology can be put to use in more imaginative ways than classical musicians have yet explored. 

    "'My feeling is that if you're going to make studio recording, let's use the technology to make an entirely different conception of a piece,' he says. 

"'For instance, I just did a recording with the New World Symphony of Villa-Lobos' `Choros No. 10,' and we stacked that piece in the studio like a rock 'n' roll piece, one track at a time. The violins play a rhythmic pattern throughout the piece, and we miked them up in a way that you could never hear in a concert hall. 
"'In fact, we had so much fun doing that, that I thought, 'What would happen if we did that with a Beethoven symphony?' First do the rhythm tracks, then record the violas in another studio, like Brian Wilson in some of the Beach Boys recordings.'" 

[unfortunately, the Beach Boys Fan Club Home Page site is no more, but you should definitely have the great Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds" in your CD collection.]

Some of the excitement one feels, then, comes from the performance, and some is artificially built in the studio. Conservative music lovers might question the means, but the end is definitely "good vibrations!" 
This CD is highly recommended, for Villa-Lobos veterans and new fans as well. 
- Dean Frey, Red Deer, March, 1997