VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 10 “Amerindia”– Lothar Odinius, tenor / Henryk Böhm / Jürgen Linn, bass-baritone / Members of the Staatsopernchor Stuttgart / SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart / Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR / Carl St. Clair – CPO 999 786-2 73:30 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony (Lobegesang) is known as a “symphony-cantata,” which might be a more accurate designation for Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Symphony No. 10, really more a cantata than a symphony. Like Mendelssohn’s work, it starts off with what seems like a genuine symphonic first movement. It’s not cast in sonata form, true, but it has symphonic sweep and includes what is tantamount to a short development section. After the exuberant first movement, however, Villa-Lobos introduces his large vocal contingent, which includes three male soloists and mixed choir. Together with an expanded orchestra and organ, the symphony has a celebratory air about it and was in fact written to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the city of São Paulo in 1954.
Not content with one subtitle (“Amerindia”), Villa-Lobos added another: Sumé Pater Patrium (“Greatest Father of Fathers”). He set two very different texts, the first a set of verses from the Tupi Indians of the Amazon, the second excerpts from a Latin poem by Jesuit missionary Father José de Anchieta entitled Beata Virgine. If you’re wondering how Villa-Lobos fits these sources together in his work, I’d venture to say he does so only by hook or by crook. Here’s a blow-by-blow: After the purely orchestral first movement, subtitled “The Earth and Its Creatures,” the second is a slow movement (Lento) subtitled “War Cry.” The bit of Tupi text speaks of conquering and lording it over all of Brazil. The third movement is a boisterous choral scherzo subtitled “Lurupichuna,” which refers to a small black-lipped monkey of the Amazon region. The Lupi text is an imagined dialog among the lurupichunas.
The fourth movement, another Lento, is by far the longest, coming in at a truly Mahlerian thirty minutes or so. It’s subtitled “The Voice of the Earth and the Appearance of Anchieta.” The Tupi text introduces Father Anchieta, announced by the Voice of the Earth as “the miracle-worker.” Indeed, there were many legends surrounding the good Padre, but historically verifiable at least is the fact that he excoriated the cruel treatment of the native peoples of Brazil by Portuguese settlers and managed to craft a peace between the Tupi and the Europeans, hence his veneration. There follows a lengthy excerpt from Anchieta’s Marian poem Beata Virgine in which the Padre first praises the wonders of created nature and then the benefits of devotion to the Virgin. The next section is a paean to “the eternal Father” followed by a Dantesque depiction of the “dragon of hell,” which even includes a swipe at Reformer John Calvin, called a “death carrier” and equated with the dragon from hell! Despite the hodgepodge of texts and sentiments, this is the most beautiful and affecting movement of all, with instances of delicate scoring and tender passages for female or male voices alone.
The fifth movement, without subtitle, looks forward to the Second Coming and ends with Villa-Lobos’s own version of the Alleluia Chorus, including a tribute to São Paulo’s namesake, Saint Paul (“Ah! Ah! / The Day of the Conversion of St. Paul. . . .”). Thus ends a remarkably variegated symphony or cantata—or some of each.
For many listeners, this symphony will be a bit too much of a good thing. Villa-Lobos seems at his most successful when he’s least pretentious—in his thoroughly charming piano music, in his uninhibited Choros, which celebrate the popular music of Brazil, and of course in his Bachianas Brasileiras, which for all that their purported melding of Baroque and Latin American musical influences are really pretty much Latin American pop music with a Baroque harmonic/contrapuntal veneer. The Symphony No. 10 has its moments of grandeur, beauty, and fun, but it doesn’t even begin to hang together as a musical experience, and it has its fair share of purple passages. It’s not only Technicolor in its orchestration; it often sounds like movie music—maybe for Green Mansions before the fact (although that 1959 film is set in Venezuela). Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed much of the symphony and was moved by some of it as well, especially the fourth movement. On the other hand, given its episodic nature, I don’t feel I have to stick with it, bailing out if I so choose or skipping ahead to a movement I particularly want to hear again. And that hardly bespeaks a genuine symphonic experience to me.
This recording of the Symphony No. 10 concludes CPO’s traversal of Villa-Lobos’s twelve symphonies (minus Symphony No. 5, the score of which is lost), a project that took almost a decade to complete. Other volumes have gotten good press, and I can see why. This is music of big gestures, and as I suggest, it’s not easy to hold together, but Carl St.Clair and his forces render it all with gusto, turning in a performance that is breathtakingly colorful, panoramic in feel. They obviously believe in this music wholeheartedly. CPO’s recording, too, is kaleidoscopic—big, bold, up-front and yet with a very realistic placement of the chorus, helping give the sound stage a nice sense of depth. If you’re a Villa-Lobos devotee, you won’t need any special coaxing from me. If you’re not, you should get a kick out of Villa-Lobos’s grand confection of a symphony and will most likely thrill to this performance and recording of it.
— Lee Passarella
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