Bach & Villa Lobos – Acht Cellisten – Preisler Records

Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach und Heitor Villa-Lobos – Acht Cellisten der Wiener Symphoniker — Preiser Records PR 90816, 59:00, (10/10/17) ****

The pairing of Villa-Lobos with Bach as far as a concert or album goes, makes sense, given the Brazilian composer’s fascination with Johann Sebastian Bach. This live concert CD pairs three pieces of Villa-Lobos with arrangements from the first cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.

The “8 Cellos of the Vienna Philharmonic” are joined by flautist Karl-Heinz Schütz to present Villa Lobos’s Die Fliegerflöte and the soprano part to the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5. “The Jet Whistle” is in fact a duet in three movements for solo cello and flute. It’s a virtuoso piece that taxes the technical capacity of both players. Villa-Lobos employs repeated patterns and rhythmic gestures to create an intriguing and enjoyable duet. The piece was new to me and it established the high professional standards of both the flautist and lead cellist, Christoph Stradner.

In a former life, I was used to arranging pieces for a like-bodied ensemble, including pieces by Bach. The challenges in arranging pieces originally for a wide gamut of tones down to a more limited range (in this case, the range of the cello) include how to preserve voicing. Another challenge is how the music survives going from a vocal setting to one for all instruments. In the case of the arrangements from BWV 248, the Acht Cellisten are successful. Arias translate nicely, and ensemble pieces sound well-voiced. I think Bach without text still works, based upon his strength as a composer and master of harmony and voice-leading.

Villa-Lobos, of course, wrote music for an orchestra of eight cellos, and both the first and fifth Bachianas Brasileiras suites are apropos for this ensemble. The composer’s idea was to combine a form from Bach’s time with more traditional Brazilian music. The first suite is presented in three movements, the first a ravishing piece full of energy (Embolada). The next movement, a “prelude” in an equally ravishing style we might imagine as a sung piece, which echoes the flavor of Barber’s Adagio.  The third movement is a fugue (Conversa). It’s dancelike, with rhythmic vitality, and it is easy to hear the parallel, to say, a fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The harmonies are not particularly baroque, but the style has been applied well-enough for us to get the nod to Bach.

The more famous suite is the fifth, which was originally scored for soprano and eight cellos. The aria is a fairly beautiful work, tonal, with a delicious theme that is supported by pizzicato bass. The Dansa movement is obviously modern, rhythmically active, and made more interesting by a traversal across several different moods. A variety of colors from the cellos is achieved, and in this performance, the flute never gets buried in the texture.

The sound and acoustic signature captured in this recording several times had me thinking “surround sound.” While the clapping reveals the live nature of the event, the music itself is clean of audience noise. There’s a palpable richness, when you’re in the center of the stereo image, to the ensemble of eight cellos. It’s one of those recordings that I think is satisfying in part because of the sound quality. The recording location, the Casino Baumgarten, is located in Vienna and sounds ideally suited to this ensemble and their program.

The music has merit on its own, but the real star in this recording are the cellists and their ability to switch between a well-integrated choir and an ensemble capable of emulating something else—combining different textures and a diversity of timbres that support the music. The contributions from Karl-Heinz Schütz further elevate the altogether fine musicianship.

—Sebastian Herrera

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