The Complete Choros
and Bachianas Brasileiras
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and soloists
One of my favorite composers is the underrated Brazilian, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). This multi-disc set of instrumental music offers masterful performances of his two great nationalistic series, the Choros and the Bachianas Brasileiras. The Brazilian musicians playing here feel the music deeply, and speak it fluently. A final disc is devoted to his complete works for solo guitar - exquisitely performed.
Villa-Lobos took his first trip to Paris in 1923 to sample the musical avant-garde. He became aware of Europe's interest in the exotic, tropical, and what they called "savage," so he decided to fashion himself into a "tropical composer." As a result, Villa-Lobos put Brazil on the classical-music map by becoming the first Brazilian composer to use native themes, subjects, and rhythms in his compositions. Through his unconventional use of rhythm and tone color, unusual harmonies, and an almost improvisatory sense of structure, features of the Brazilian landscape reveal themselves in beguiling ways.
The young Villa-Lobos had participated in the serenading instrumental ensembles performing in the streets and theatres of Rio de Janeiro. They drew on popular and Indian traditions, and produced music distinctive for its polyphony, improvisation, and virtuosic display. The twelve Choros transformed this indigenous music, while leaving intact some of the music's primal and yes, "savage" elements (witness the hypnotic chants of Nos. 3 and 10). These are remarkable, and distinctly South American in flavor. He wrote these for solo instruments, chamber groups, and orchestra, and they range from a couple of minutes to more than an hour.
Who could have known that Bach and Brazil were made for each other? But Villa-Lobos knew that Johann Sebastian Bach could speak to everyone, in a kind of a global folk music, so he created a unique synthesis of Bach and Brazil in the nine Bachianas Brasileiras. He composed them between 1930 and 1945, again for various instrumental forces, orchestra predominating. Searingly beautiful folk-inspired melodies combine with colorful percussion to suffuse musical forms Bach himself would have known. Movements have dual titles, one Bachian (such as toccata, fugue, prelude), and one more specifically Brazilian (embolada, modinha, cantiga).
You've probably heard his most popular work, the haunting aria movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, for soprano and cellos. Right behind in popularity is the final movement of No. 2, commonly known as "The Little Train of the Caipira," an amazing piece for orchestra that recreates in almost painstaking detail the sounds of a steam locomotive jaunting through the Brazilian countryside.
If you're up for the adventure, this excursion into the heart of Brazil through the music of one of its great sons is well worth the trip. --Mark