An Exciting New Villa-Lobos Symphony Cycle on Naxos

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Villa-Lobos’ 11 symphonies (numbered 1-12, No. 5 is lost) are the least known of all of his orchestral works, for the simple reason that they largely avoid folkloric elements. This doesn’t mean that they are austere; check out the opening of No. 7 (sound sample). The textures are as lush and exotic as anything in his output, but the melodic material is often elusive, and the form less than clearly articulated. Repeated listening confirms that the composer knew what he was doing, and both of the symphonies offered here feature slow movements of truly striking beauty and atmosphere. In other words, they are well worth getting to know, and ideal for concentrated attention at home.

The Sixth Symphony features a gimmick: its principal thematic ideas were supposedly derived from superimposing a topographical map of Brazil on music paper and reducing the mountainous outline to musical ideas. The result, as you might guess, has a certain unmelodic rise and fall, but Villa-Lobos doesn’t worry too much about that, and after making his initial point the rest of the music sounds, well, normal (for him). Symphony No. 7 is one of his most impressive large works, scored for a huge orchestra and loaded with those characteristic gestures—divided violins, low trombone chords, chattering wind ostinatos—that will be instantly familiar to anyone who knows and loves his music.

CPO has a fine complete symphony cycle available featuring Carl St. Clair and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. You might think that having native players, as here, constitutes an advantage, but that’s not necessarily the case. Isaac Karabtchevsky recorded the least compelling version of the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, but that was a few decades ago with a very inferior Brazil Symphony Orchestra. The São Paulo Symphony is a much finer ensemble, and Karabtchevsky’s performances are far more persuasive here. He’s different enough from St. Clair, marginally slower but arguably to the music’s advantage in the numerous thickly textured passages, that there’s no reason not to collect this new series. The sonics are rich, full, and remarkably clear given the music’s density. This is going to be fun.

Villa-Lobos: Symphony No. 7 (I) Karabtchevsky


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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None


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