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Essential South American Composers

Heitor Villa-Lobos & Alberto Ginastera
By Gary Barton

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Two new recordings on the Bridge Records label prompt me to make some recommendations about recordings of music by two great representatives of South American music, Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil and Alberto Ginastera of Argentina. I'll start with Villa-Lobos, as he is in many ways the most immediately accessible of the two.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887. As we have seen in the lives of many composers and musicians, one of his parents was the first to give him musical instruction; his father taught him how to play the cello. Young Heitor's father died when he was eleven and his mother then tried to exert her influence to steer him away from music towards a more stabile and financially secure career in medicine. However, Villa-Lobos had made up his mind that he would devote his life to music and began by playing in cafés, theatres and nightclubs as a guitarist, cellist and clarinetist. He was interested in all sorts of music and traveled alone into the interior of Brazil, sometimes far from civilization, to research native songs. He is alleged to have even spent time with tribes that still practiced cannibalism, which may account for the later omnipresent cigar in his mouth or hand in most pictures of him. (Cannibals reportedly disliked the flavor imparted into flesh by the use of tobacco.) Urban and rural popular songs from the Spanish and Portuguese traditions also fascinated Villa-Lobos.

As a composer, Villa-Lobos was an autodidact who admired the music of Debussy, Wagner and Puccini. He was greatly influenced by the music of Bach and often combined counterpoint with melodies resembling Brazilian folk and popular music. He ultimately became responsible for the music education program of his vast country, designing a complete system of musical instruction for generations of Brazilians that was based upon Brazil's rich musical culture. Villa-Lobos died on November 17, 1959.

Conductor Jan Wagner (a native of Caracas, Venezuela) has come out with two CD's that are exciting additions to the catalogue. Both of them feature the Odense Symphony Orchestra, which is located in Denmark, and were recorded in the acoustically warm Carl Nielsen Hall of Odense Koncerthus.

Bridge 9129 contains one of the Bachianas Brasileiras (No. 4), works that first drew widespread attention to this composer. What is very special about this recording, however, is rest of the works included. Uirapurù (The Enchanted Bird) is based on several Amazonian myths about a legendary bird that sings an enchanting song deep within the rain forest. The Indians considered it the king of love and young men would hunt for it in groups. Villa-Lobos wrote this work in 1917. It had several concert performances but was not staged as a ballet (which was the original intention) until 1935. The booklet that comes with the CD contains excellent notes by Malcolm MacDonald (I have paraphrased much of them here) and it is easy to follow the story as the music unfolds. Villa-Lobos depicts in both of these works an impression of the vastness of Brazil. It has been a very long time since Uirapurù has been recorded and released to the general public; Bridge Records and conductor Wagner have done us a great service indeed by serving up this fine performance.

Also on this CD is the very dramatic Emperor Jones, which is based on the play of the same name by Eugene O'Neill. Villa-Lobos artfully depicts the chilling story of Brutus Jones's descent into madness, "assailed by his primal fears, his guilt and the spirits of his victims."

Villa-Lobos wrote nine suites he called Bachianas Brasileiras for various instrumental combinations: three for orchestra, one for an ensemble of eight cellos, one for cellos and soprano, one for solo piano, one for piano and orchestra, one for flute and bassoon, and one for string orchestra or unaccompanied chorus. All of them plus many more important works by Villa-Lobos are available in a boxed set of six CD's from EMI (67229). The composer leads the performances. Included are the Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 1-7 plus three suites entitled Descobrimento do Brasil (The Discovery of Brazil), Invocaçao em Defesa da Pátria (Invocation for the Defense of Our Fatherland), Symphony No. 4 "A Vitória" and Momoprecoce. Victoria De Los Angeles is the soprano soloist in Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5; her warm and embracing voice makes you forget for a moment that this is a mono performance recorded in 1958.

You can get Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 1,2,5, and 9 on EMI 66964 with the same performing forces for a much more modest price. This recording is part of EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century Series."

Jesús López-Cobos has put out a very nice Hi-Fi Stereo Surround Sound recording of Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 2, 4 and 8 on Telarc 80393 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I don't think this disc has received the attention it deserves. I particularly like No. 2, which affords one a musical glimpse of the vastness of Brazil. The last movement, "The Little Train of the Caipira," is a charming musical portrait of a ride Villa-Lobos took on a railroad that carried berry pickers and farm workers from São Paulo into the Brazilian interior. You can even hear the squeal of the brakes of the little train at the end of the ride. Cellist Eric Kim plays beautifully in the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 8. This CD belongs in every Cincinnatian's collection as well as that of any audiophile with an interest in Villa-Lobos's music.

I'd also like to suggest that you add Centaur 2576 to your collection. Cuban-born pianist Nohema Fernandez plays a collection of piano pieces that Artur Rubinstein first introduced, A Prole do Bebê (The Baby's Family), in which dolls represent the many racial and social facets of Brazil. Also on the recording are the solo piano works A Lenda do Caboclo (The Legend of the Brazilian Mestizo) (1920), As Três Marias (The Three Marys) (1939), Saudades da Selvas Brasileiras (Yearnings for the Brazilian Forests), written during Villa-Lobos's second stay in Paris, and Chôro No. 5 "Alma Brasileira" (Brazilian Soul) (1925). Paul Freeman, resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the 1970's, leads the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra with Ms. Fernandez in Momoprecoce (1929) to conclude the album. This work is based on an earlier solo piano composition called Carnaval das Criancas (Children's Carnival) that ends in a contagious carnival samba.

Alberto Ginastera

Alberto Ginastera lived from 1916 to 1983. His parents were European (his father Catalan, his mother Italian), and their son was without a doubt the most important personage in Argentinean music in the 20th century. Ginastera's earliest works place him as Argentina's Villa-Lobos - a nationalistic composer interested in depicting Argentinean backgrounds and culture through music filled with the passionate chants of native folk music. Over time, his approach to music became more international.

Bridge Recordings 9130 brings performances of four important works by Ginastera to the market. It opens with the Creole Faust Overture (1943), which describes a gaucho (an Argentinean cowboy) talking to a friend about a performance of Faust that he has just seen in Buenos Aires. The two tether their horses and discuss the story over a bottle of gin. Malcolm MacDonald is again the program annotator for this release. Also on this release is Ollantay, Op. 17 (Three Symphonic Movements). The final selection is Pampeana No. 3, a work commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra in 1954.

Ginastera's opera, Bonbarzo, created great controversy. It was supposed to be premiered in Buenos Aires on August 8, 1967 but local authorities banned it on moral grounds, stating that it was filled with sex and violence and not fit to be heard. The composer agreed, but said that the protagonist "is a man of our times."

One of the movements of Ginastera's Concerto for Piano No. 1 is marked "Scherzo Allucinante," which might be translated as "to be played as an hallucinatory joke." Pianist Joao Carlos Martins premiered the concerto in 1961 and delivered a mind-blowing performance for RCA when he later recorded it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. Unfortunately, this performance is no longer available except on the original LP record. You can, however, get the Piano Sonata for Piano and the Concerto for Piano No. 1 together on a Phoenix recording (110) with Hilde Somer, piano, and Ernst Märzendorfer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the concerto.

Alberto Ginastera wrote, "Art is a necessity and for many people of sensibility it is like a spiritual nourishment. Thus art is first perceived by our senses, it then affects our sentiments and in the end awakens our intelligence. Today too much is written and spoken on the subject of modern art and that is possibly because a great part of this art fails to impress the feelings of the public, since some informalist fashions have disturbed the real sense of art..." "A work which speaks only to the intelligence of man will never reach his heart."

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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