Symphonies: No. 6,
“On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil”;
Isaac Karabtchevsky, cond; São Paulo SO
NAXOS 8.573043 (68: 18)
The prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote 12 symphonies, although the choral 5th is either lost or non-existent. Music poured from his pen, and his symphonies resemble his other orchestral works in that they are vast canvasses, teeming with elaborate detail (especially, but not exclusively, in the faster sections). While they tend to be in four movements, the works show few other signs of classical structuring. As Paul A. Snook put it in an earlier review of the 6th, symphonic form did not sit easily with the composer’s “congenitally rhapsodic and improvisatory temperament.” Nevertheless, for fans of the evocative orchestral
series or the tone poems, Villa-Lobos’s symphonies are worth investigating. For all the occasional note spinning, they also contain many passages of great beauty, and the composer’s distinctive sense of color never deserts him.
Back in 1997, Roberto Duarte’s recording of the 6th was intended to be the first of a complete edition on Marco Polo (a label owned by Naxos), but the remainder failed to materialize. Between 1997 and 2000, CPO recorded their own complete edition (minus the 5th) with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra under Carl St. Clair. I reviewed that set in
33:5. Now, Naxos announces this new recording as the first of another complete series.
The 6th symphony of 1944 is subtitled “On the outline of the mountains of Brazil,” and that is literally what it is. Using a photograph, Villa-Lobos structured his themes to follow the contours of a mountain range, namely the Serra dos Órgãos in Rio de Janeiro province. (He had previously written a short piano piece by the same method: 1939’s
New York Skyline
.) I can’t say his topographical approach is all that evident—it sounds little different to his other orchestral work—but something of the spirit of the mountains permeates the textures and colors of this work, particularly in the atmospheric second movement,
which could easily stand alone as a tone poem. Interestingly, this symphony followed its predecessor after a gap of several years, during which Villa-Lobos wrote most of the orchestral
series. The resemblance to the latter is striking. He conducted the symphony several times, and it became something of a breakthrough work for him in the United States.
The 7th, written the following year, is longer and has more of a tendency to sprawl. Like the 6th, it includes an evocative
movement, but its scherzo and finale, together constituting 18 minutes of music, lack the tautness of their equivalents in the earlier work. One of the composer’s best-known pieces depicts a train travelling through a mountainous Brazilian rain forest. Perhaps this is the best way to approach these pieces: like a train journey through a lush and colorful terrain where you may gaze out the window to take in a series of passing impressions.
Both Karabtchevsky and the São Paulo orchestra have experience performing the work of this composer. The orchestra recorded the complete
with different conductors for BIS, while Karabtchevsky made a recording of the
with another Brazilian orchestra over two decades ago. The new performances are excellent, and bode well for the rest of the Naxos series. They tend to be slower than those in the St. Clair/CPO set, particularly in the slow movements. St. Clair’s 7th runs to 36:02, compared to Karabtchevsky’s 39:28, a considerable difference, while the ratio of the 6th symphony’s timings is 25:48 to 28:49. St. Clair moves the music along, and there is a case for doing so when dealing in such a rhapsodic idiom. The
from the 6th loses none of its atmosphere in St. Clair’s faster rendition, but in the 7th it is the other way around: There Karabtchevsky finds more mystery in the slow movement by dwelling on textural details.
Perhaps the deciding factor is the sound. Both orchestras play beautifully, but the separation of instrumental groups in St. Clair’s recordings is clearer. Naxos’s engineers make the São Paulo orchestra sound opaque at times (not at all like their BIS recordings). While the sound is appropriately warm, the risk is that Villa-Lobos’s busy scoring can begin to seem amorphous. I prefer the crystalline textures of the CPO discs, but that by no means rules this new release out of court. As the first in a new edition of these highly individual symphonies, it is most welcome.