VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 6 “On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil”; Symphony No. 7 – Sao Paulo Sym. Orch./Isaac Karabtchevsky – Naxos 8.573043, 68:18 ****:
We rarely enter the world of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ symphonic music; a pity, given his output of eleven extant works in the form. The composer evolved a “geometric” method to derive a melody from a visual image which he termed “Millimeterization,” using transparent graph paper to map out vertical lines to pitches and horizontal lines to duration: the transparency would be superimposed on a landscape photograph, whose main points determined the melodic contour. In the case of the 1944 Sixth Symphony, Villa-Lobos plotted photos of the Serra dos Orgaos and the hills of Rio de Janeiro, Corcovado, and Sugar Loaf.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, despite its angular themes and chromatic harmony, proceeds in a traditional format that relies on classical procedures, like inversion and counterpoint. The extensive Lento indulges Villa-Lobos’ pantheistic predilections, offering exotic colors in strings, harp, and woodwinds. The harmony maintains an upward progression, increasing in both intensity and texture, over a huge pedal point and often throbbing bass line. A powerful chorale of sorts urges itself forward, with passing dissonances and dark coloration infiltrating what might be a forest environ. The Allegretto third movement projects a vital fanfare aura reminiscent of moments in Walton or Antheil. A tympani riff followed by aggressive string and brass punctuations open the last movement Allegro, whose vivid colors and tumultuous ensemble invoke Villa-Lobos’ national identity. Divided violas and cellos invoke an academic procedure, fugato, but the potent rhythmic thrust assembles more pagan energies. A quiet episode prior to the coda suggests an emotional repose, an oasis of inner meditation, before the ominous fanfare and decisive proclamation of the final bars.
Villa-Lobos composed his 1945 Symphony No. 7 for a Detroit Symphony Orchestra competition, and his innovative spark having been ignited, Villa-Lobos scored the piece on a grand scale, including massive percussion, piano, two harps, and an electronic instrument, a Hammond Novachord. Villa-Lobos dubbed this work “Odysseus of Peace” in four movements: Prologue, Contrasts, Tragedy, and Epilogue. Strings and woodwinds, aided by percussion, dominate the first movement, a series of symmetrical arches in a virile mix that rarely relaxes its tensions. An extended Lento follows, the bassoon’s opening a progression that casts an oriental veil a la Stravinsky. Ironically, the theme derives from the word “America” and its notational equivalents. The evolution of the relatively somber atmosphere occurs via woodwinds and low strings, moving to a brass peroration and subsequent “chorale” of some power. The Scherzo conveys that jungle, “Jivaro” character that often defines the Villa-Lobos ethos. Karabtchevsky invites a series of prismatic analogies to the sounds he evokes from his massive orchestra, a real color tour de force. The contrapuntal last movement, Allegro preciso, strikes me as relatively gentle by contrast to the preceding movements, breezy and cosmopolitan despite its occasional, brassy clashes between diatonic and chromatic harmonies.
The recording (21 February-5 March 2011) constitutes the first in a series devoted to the complete Villa-Lobos symphonies.
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