VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 4 “A Vitoria”; Piano Concerto No. 5; Momoprecoce Fantasia; Chorus No. 5 for Piano – Soloists/ Orch. Nat. de la Radiodiffusion Francaise/ Heitor Villa-Lobos – Urania

by | Feb 25, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 4 “A Vitoria”; Piano Concerto No. 5; Momoprecoce Fantasia; Chorus No. 5 for Piano “Alma Brasileira” – Felicia Blumenthal, piano (Concerto)/ Magda Tagliaferro, piano (Momoprecoce)/ Aline van Barentzen, piano (Choros)/ Orch. Nat. de la Radiodiffusion Francaise/ Heitor Villa-Lobos – Urania Records Widescreen Collection WS 121.133, 75:32  [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) enjoyed a healthy reputation as a conductor of his works, having recorded for EMI and assorted labels. This collation begins with the composer’s powerful inscription (no dates supplied) of his 1919 Symphony No. 4 “La Vitoria,” a passionate dirge and celebration for the end of the First World War. The brass and battery of the French National Radio Orchestra have their work cut out for them in the course of the first two movements, Allegro impetuoso and Andante, respectively. The aggressive second movement projects a series of cascading woodwinds before the appearance of “La Marseillaise” in dire harmonies.  The music becomes ferociously martial in character, Villa-Lobos’ raucous answer to the 1812 Overture or Mazeppa. A powerful romantic string figure rises up over drum beats and achieves a whirling, chromatic melancholy, ending with an explosive chord.
The four contrabassoons help lead us into the Lento, a scene possibly out of the Somme after a huge battle. The miasma clears, and we sense, over an ostinato, passionate vistas of wasted youth. The expansive last movement is marked Allegro (avec fanfare), another tribute to the Grim Reaper, at least at first. A violin solo does little to assuage the fierce tension of the opening. Two harps, xylophone, and celesta add more diaphanous colors to this weirdly evocative movement, assisted by a flute solo. We find solace, perhaps, in the Amazon, since a native dance suddenly erupts with indigenous instruments: pandeira, caixa, guizos, sinos, chocalho. The “Victory” seems pantheistic, or ritualistic, as the “Song of the Amazon” holds sway over the vaporous, often mystical colors that arise in magnificent, contrapuntal panoply. The brass fanfare opens the doors of Heaven, a step away from The Great Gate of Kiev. It’s as if all the machinations of puny Man were consumed by an infinitely greater force, likely a mythical anaconda. Villa-Lobos doesn’t seem too sad about it, rather reveling in the primal dance.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 comes to us rightly performed by Felicia Blumenthal (1908-1991), who gave the world premier at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Jean Martinon (8 May 1956). In four movements, the 20-minute concerto opens with an aggressive but lyrical Allegro non troppo, with plenty of block chords and double octaves from Blumenthal. The woodwinds have their fair share of the melodic turn the strings offer, passionate a la Rachmaninov or Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. The second movement Poco Adagio extends the tempestuous intensity, Blumenthal seeming to improvise over long, chromatic riffs in the strings. The middle section becomes a meditative nocturne of some power, the affect close to Faure. The Allegretto scherzando convinces us that Prokofiev’s G Minor Concerto might be an influence, but Gershwin no less so. Brass, strings, and keyboard compete for which can prevail in running scales and explosive chords and trills. The level of bravura, however fierce, does not lose its slinky sense of lyricism. A percussive but passionate cadenza arises, Rachmaninov gone to visit the Andes, until it becomes both intimate and boldly assertive. A suspended cadence takes to the final Allegro, at first solo piano, but then ensues a rampage from strings, horns, and battery. Almost like the last movement of the Chopin “Funeral March” Sonata, the movement ends after hardly having begun, a flurry of piano and whirling strings having tossed exotic macaws’ feathers into the air.
Momoprecoce (1919-1929) stands as Villa-Lobos’ grand treatment of  a childhood universe rife with nationalistic colors. Based on an original piano suite Carnaval das criancas brasilieras (1919), the piano-concerto-except-in-name proceeds in one extended movement which takes its motifs from the onset of the work. Magda Tagliaferro (1893-1986), an artist much sought to debut new compositions, provides the brilliant keyboard part. The saucy Allegro non troppo sets the tone for the entire work, feral and reveling in sumptuous sound. A softer section ensues but only momentarily, since the orchestration suggests Jivaro natives have come to inhabit the festivities. When the rhapsody takes a dramatic turn, the intensity heats up via fleet, repeated patterns that assume a ritualistic quality, especially as the keyboard finds supplements in indigenous Amazon instruments or their “Western” counterparts. A slow section, in parlando-recitative style, permits Tagliaferro her sweeter side, the music’s indulging in melodic tissue reminiscent of the French school of Milhaud, Poulenc and Francaix. The last section makes its presence felt immediately, another jungle-jazz dance marked by drums and strings, a conga extraordinaire!
The last selection, the Choros No. 5 “Alma Brasileira,” has the distinction of a reading by Aline van Barentzen (1897-1981), who in 1908 won the First Prize at the Paris Conservatory at age eleven. Part nocturne, part etude, the piece reveals a dynamic presence in both composer and performer, its ternary structure slightly indebted to Chopin’s Etude in E Major. Quite an exotic refined world, the keyboard works of Heitor Villa-Lobos!
—Gary Lemco

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