Tomorrow Naxos will release the fifth installment in its project to record the complete symphonies of Heitor Villa-Lobos. The performances are by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by the Brazilian Isaac Karabtchevsky. The symphonies on the new album are the eighth, ninth, and eleventh. Those interested in jumping the gun can now pre-order the CD through Amazon.com.
To review the “state of play,” so to speak, this new release brings progress to the point of recording all symphonies from the sixth to Villa-Lobos’ last, the twelfth. There is also a recording of the third and fourth symphonies. That means that the only remaining symphonies will be the first, second, and fifth; and there is a good chance that they will all fit on a single disc, meaning that the entire collection will consist of six CDs. This is basically the same size as the recorded collection of all seventeen of his string quartets, while the nine “Bachianas Brasileiras” compositions require three CDs, the last with space left over for at least one more composition.
What is interesting is that all three of the symphonies on this new album were first performed in the United States. The eighth was given its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1955 (although the symphony had been written in 1950). Villa-Lobos himself conducted, and the concert took place not in Philadelphia but in Carnegie Hall. The ninth was premièred earlier, in 1952, which was also the year of its completion. It was written on a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra. This time, however, the conductor was Eugene Ormandy; and presumably the first performance took place at a subscription concert in Philadelphia.
The eleventh was also written on commission in 1955. This time, however, the commissioning ensemble was the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The occasion was the celebration of the ensemble’s 75th anniversary. Villa-Lobos dedicated the symphony to Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. Villa-Lobos was living in Paris when Koussevitzky was championing new music through his Concerts Koussevitzky series (although I have been unable to turn up any evidence that Koussevitzky ever conducted any of Villa-Lobos’ music in this series). The conductor at the BSO premiere was Charles Munch.
The New York Times dismissed that Boston performance as “superficial.” While Villa-Lobos’ modernism appealed to many both while he was in Paris and when he returned to Brazil, the Times critic was probably reflecting a growing opinion that Villa-Lobos was not keeping up with the times. In 1955 those were “the times” of a highly cerebral interest in abstraction through different approaches to serialism; and those on the vanguard of that prevailing interest tended to accuse those who would not follow their lead of lacking the intellectual chops to do so. Now that tonality is no longer trayf, we can again take a guilt-free approach to the rich qualities of Villa-Lobos’ harmonies and the prevailing lyricism of his overall rhetoric.
On the other hand many are likely to feel that, once Villa-Lobos found a comfort zone for his approach to composition, he never ventured very far from it. It is thus likely that many may find the full scope of his symphonies to be a bit much (even if the entirety of that scope has not yet been revealed). Reader may recall that I had a similar reaction to the string quartets; and, on that occasion, I suggested that the quartets were best appreciated individually, rather than as some sort of evolving journey. This is not music for “binge listening” (not that I approve of such an approach to serious listening in the first place)! The point is that any one of the nine symphonies recorded thus far can be appreciated on its own merits; and those merits should not be impeded by any efforts to seek out “cross-talk” with other symphonies in the canon.