Although this is the third in a series of recordings of Villa Lobos's piano music played by Brazilian pianist Sonia Rubinsky on the Naxos label, it's the first to come my way. I have little knowledge of Villa Lobos's piano music; as a youth I stumbled my way through 'O Polichinello' at the keyboard, and I've heard the visceral 'Rudepoêma' performed in recital by Marc-André Hamelin (but don't have his Villa Lobos CD). I was unprepared for the artful but unforced charm of the pieces on this disc.
'Suite Floral' (8 mins.) is a three-piece suite written in a perfumed impressionistic and somewhat derivative style not generally characteristic of the composer. The middle piece, 'Uma Camponeza Cantadeira' ('A Singing Country Girl'), is makes effective use of naive-sounding quintal harmonies and an asymmetric accompanimental figure in the bass. The suite is followed on this CD by 'Ciclo Brasileiro,' a major four-piece suite (22 mins.) whose components separately and in toto are hypnotizing. In my aural imagination, 'The Peasant's Sowing' mimics in right-hand figurations the broadcasting of seed, while a hymnlike chorale in the left hand lauds the fertility of the earth. 'Impressions of a Serenade Musician' is naive-sounding but the virtuosic piano writing, particularly in the repetitive fragmentation of the waltz tune, is artfully sophisticated. 'The Fête in the Heartlands' bustles with high energy and the rapidly alternating chords remind one of the previously mentioned 'O Polichinello' from 'A Prole do bebê.' 'Dance of the White Indian' is a virtuosic and fierce-sounding toccata with ostinato alternating chords surrounding a middle-register melody; it reportedly is a self-portrait of the composer. (I wonder if the hint of the 'Dies Irae' in the melody is intentional; I expect so.)
'Brinqueda de Roda' ('Children's Round Games') is a 12-minute collection of seven simple pieces (possibly meant for children themselves to play) based on Brazilian children's singing and dancing games. The textures are simple, often with oom-pah or Alberti bass accompaniments, the melodies ingratiating and the whole thing utterly charming in its simplicity.
The three infectious 'Danças Caracteristicas Africanas' are based on some melodies Villa Lobos heard when among Mato Grosso Indians; they clearly have African antecedents (and, for that matter, syncopated proto-ragtime rhythms abound). The excellent booklet notes by James Melo tell us that an orchestral version of these dances exists.
The beguiling 5-minute 'Tristorosa,' an early piece (1910), is a gently swaying waltz written in rondo form [ABACA]; the two contrasting sections are slightly more impulsive but they return to the sultry grace of the original theme. Ms Rubinsky's Brazilian origin is in evidence here--the subtle rubato is perfect.
The disc concludes with three of Villa Lobos's 'Chôros', Nos. 1, 2 and 5. No. 1 ('Tipico') was originally for guitar and features 'typical' Brazilian dance rhythms; again, Ms Rubinsky's handling of rhythms and alterations of tempi via fermatas and rubato are masterful. No. 2, originally for flute and clarinet but rewritten for piano by the composer, features a stylized use of the clave rhythm and has an unexpected comic ending. Chôros No. 5 ('Alma Brasileira' ['Brazilian Soul']) is indeed soulful with languorous sections interrupted by a violent, sexy dance employing tart polytonal harmonies.
I enjoyed this disc immensely and gained new regard for Villa Lobos as a composer for piano. Sonia Rubinsky's playing is sensitive, rhythmically alive and virtuosic when needed. The recorded piano sound is lifelike.