Isaac Karabtchevsky: Villa-Lobos: Symphonies Nos. 1&2

by Illiam Sebitz

Heitor Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer, that has become the best-known South American composer of all time. Described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music.” A prolific composer, writing numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works, totaling over 2000 works by his death in 1959. His music was influenced by both Brazilian folk music and by stylistic elements from the European classical tradition, as exemplified by his Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bachian-pieces). His Etudes for guitar (1929) were dedicated to Andrés Segovia, while his 5 Preludes (1940) were dedicated to Arminda Neves d’Almeida, a.k.a. “Mindinha.” Both are important works in the guitar repertory. Villa-Lobos composed his First Symphony in 1916, to a philosophical argument written by himself under the pseudonym “Epaminondas Villalba Filho.” It is the first in a cycle of five symphonies written in the style of Vincent d’Indy. Villa-Lobos began composing his Second Symphony in Rio de Janeiro in 1917, but the score was not completed until late in 1943 or early in 1944. Conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra bring these two worlds to life with VILLA-LOBOS: SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 & 2 on the Naxos Classics label.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s first two symphonies take the European tradition head-on, absorbing French models prevalent in Brazil in the early twentieth century. The confident swagger of the First Symphony is characteristic of Villa-Lobos’s ‘Brazilianness,’ while the cyclical Second Symphony filters a myriad of influences including the music of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Puccini. It is a slow movement heralds the affecting melodic content that would later become the trademark of the Bachianas Brasileiras. This is the sixth and final volume of an acclaimed complete edition of Villa-Lobos’s symphonies in which conductor ‘Karabtchevsky leads the way.’

“Symphony No. 1, Op. 112, W. 114 “O Imprevisto”: II. Adagio” is masterfully conceived, this was Vill-Lobos’ 1st Symphony Villa-Lobos, he was still learning to write music for the orchestra, but it is brought to life on this recording. The original score was carefully revised, fixing many mistakes and excrescences, in which Karabtchevsky himself played a major role. The playing is exquisite by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the music has a sense of groove thanks to Karabtchevsky’s baton. Especially the beautiful final section, the counterpoint is so wonderfully played between the woodwinds and strings. The energy is there, the flow of the Brazilian romanticism shines through.

The 2nd Symphony was not finished, and Villa-Lobos certainly polished the piece over time. Consequently the 2nd Symphony seems more mature than the 1st symphony. The 2nd Symphony is based on the principles of composition advocated by Vincent d’Indy and there are many French and Russian-sounding passages. Karabtchevsky again shows his mastery of pulse and flow with the Villa-Lobos score, “Symphony No. 2, Op. 160, W. 132 “Ascenção”: IV. Allegro” opening statement is a fine example. The power of each part is brought out, and the release is beautifully flowing in time and color for the answer.

This recording marks the end of the Naxos series of the Villa-Lobos symphonies. Naxos has done a great job with this whole series. For these two symphonies they used a Beach at Nightfall, Rio de Janeiro, 1940, by Thomaz Farkas for the cover. The liner notes are by Fábio Zanon, who is currently a visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, which is undeniably a first-class essay, with strong analysis and new insights into the two works. Altogether, VILLA-LOBOS: SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 & 2 represents a tremendous recording and is a major contribution to the Villa-Lobos recorded catalog. Bravo!

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