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CD Review

Heitor Villa-Lôbos

Ballet Music

  • Uirapurú
  • Bachianas Brasileiras #4
  • The Emperor Jones
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner
Bridge 9129 DDD 61:36
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In 1956, Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lôbos wrote The Emperor Jones, a ballet score based on the Eugene O'Neill play, for dancer and choreographer José Limón. He subsequently recorded it with the Symphony of the Air (the NBC Symphony Orchestra). Villa-Lôbos's unpublished score was lost, and it was only through the composer's recording that the ballet could be revived. Recently, conductor Jan Wagner found Villa-Lôbos's manuscript score in a box of costumes in the Limón Institute, and it is through this discovery that The Emperor Jones is receiving its second recording, almost fifty years after the first one.

O'Neill's play remains thought-provoking. It concerns an escaped convict who is shipwrecked on a tropical island and who proclaims itself its ruler. As he is a tyrant, soon his subjects revolt, and he is forced to retreat into the jungle where he is tormented by his past misdeeds. Villa-Lôbos's twenty-two-minute score is more than just decorative. It captures the essence of the play – Brutus Jones's conflicts with nature, the spirit world, and ultimately, himself. Wagner's discovery is a significant addition to the Villa-Lôbos catalogue, and I suspect Bridge's recording will be the first of several. Don't wait, though, because Wagner and the Odense Symphony Orchestra are very satisfactory performers.

While The Emperor Jones is late Villa-Lôbos, Uirapurú is a ballet from the start of his career. Composed in 1917, it was not produced as a ballet until 1935. Like The Emperor Jones, this ballet is characterized by its strong, primary colors, its narrative structure, and above all, by its use of many melodic and rhythmic elements from the diverse culture of Brazilian music. Based on Brazilian folklore, the plot culminates in a sort of Amazonian Liebestod, although it is unknown what Richard Wagner would have thought of the violinophone, an amplified violin enlisted in the score's most supernatural moments.

The fourth of Villa-Lôbos's Bachianas Brasileiras, like others in the series (not all of them orchestral), seems to ask the question, "What kind of music would Johann Sebastian Bach have written if he had traveled through Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century?" This is one of the composer's most attractive scores, especially the second movement, a "Song of the Brazilian Backlands" treated like a Bach chorale, and punctuated by the harsh chirp of an indigenous bird.

Jan Wagner's strong feeling for color and rhythm gives these scores the support they need, and Bridge's recording team has achieved excellent results. The Odense Symphony Orchestra's strings aren't ideally lush, but overall, the orchestra is refined and up to the task.

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle