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CD Review

Heitor Villa-Lôbos


  • Symphony #3 "A Guerra"
  • Symphony #9
  • Ouverture de l'Homme Tel
SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart/Carl St. Clair
CPO 999712-2
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Like most of Brazilian composer Villa-Lôbos' symphonies, the 1919 Third and 1952 Ninth are rarely performed and recorded. These, in fact, appear to be the only currently-available recordings of the works. Subtitled 'A Guerra' (To War), the Third is one of the composer's longest symphonies, having a duration here of just over thirty-four minutes, nearly half its length taken up by the powerful third movement (Lento e marcial). The work sounds more American, even British, than it does Brazilian. Those relatively exotic flavors owe something to the fact that the symphony was commissioned by the Brazilian government in observance of the then-recent Armistice.

Cast in four movements, each depicting some element associated with the wartime era as designated here by subtitles, the work quotes patriotic tunes such as 'La Marseillaise' and the Brazilian National Anthem. But this derivative aspect is a minor feature on this very large canvas, since most of the music is original and all of the four panels, even the ostensibly chipper Scherzo, are fraught with tension or dark elements. The unsettling third movement, meant to depict the suffering of World War I, is one of the deepest creations for orchestra to come from Villa-Lôbos' pen.

The whole work is quite moving, though not necessarily as grim as its subject matter might seem to suggest. The outer movements are quite colorful, as is the Scherzo, and while all are quite serious, they contain elements of humor and joy, and express an ultimate sense of triumph. The Symphony #9, slightly over half the length of the earlier work, is cast in four movements as well and is also a worthwhile effort. It is even more American-sounding, not a surprising feature since by the time Villa-Lôbos composed this symphony he had spent much time in the United States, his first visit coming in 1944.

The Ninth's orchestration is scaled-down a bit compared with that of its younger sibling, but its energy is somewhat more kinetic. Here, the slow movement, the second, lasts just under six minutes, and the rest of the work is quite lively. Both symphonies are solid works, but the Third, despite certain elements of bombast, is the more compelling. The Ouverture de l'Homme Tel, originally part of a larger work – Suite Suggestive, for soprano, baritone and orchestra – is an attractive bonus in its purely orchestral guise here.

Once again, Carl St. Clair draws splendid performances from his Stuttgart-based ensemble. In fact, overall this orchestra sounds competitive throughout this series with many world-class ensembles. The sound by CPO is vivid and the notes excellent. Recommended.

Copyright © 2003, Robert Cummings