The compositional output of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is certainly vast. Symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, choral works, works for the stage, film scores; it appears that Villa-Lobos made significant contributions to each of the established musical forms. Amazingly, Villa-Lobos claims to have "invented" two new musical forms: the Bachianas Brasileiras and the Choros. The nine Bachianas have become relatively well-known, in comparison to the Choros, partially due to the fact they have been the beneficiary of a series of excellent recordings (Naxos' recording of the complete Bachianas is highly recommended by this reviewer). But the highly varied Choros are deserving of wider attention as well.
The Choros are different from the Bachianas Brasileiras in that they are generally one movement affairs and that structure plays a subsidiary role. In fact, the Choros were composed to give the listener a feeling of improvisation, similar to that of the musical style of the serenade players that filled the streets of turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. The Choros are similar to the Bachianas Brasileiras in that the individual pieces are scored for different forces and each piece varies vastly in scale. For instance, Choros No. 2 is scored for flute and clarinet and lasts less than three minutes, while Choros No. 11 is scored for piano and orchestra and lasts for more than an hour. Villa-Lobos said of the Choros: "The Choros represents a new form of musical composition synthesizing the different modalities of Indian and popular Brazilian music, its principal elements being rhythm and typical melody popular in character that accidentally appears from time to time."
During the 1920's, Villa-Lobos composed, by my count, sixteen different Choros, not including the composer's substantial "Introduction" to the Choros, which more or less acts an overture to the whole series. Fourteen of these have survived; twelve are numbered, while there are two unnumbered Choros Bis composed for violin and cello. The remaining two Choros, both for orchestra, are thought to have been lost in Paris during World War II. Confusing, isn't it? For those interested in acquiring the series, the introduction, and Nos. 1 through 7 are available on an excellent release on ASV (Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra), Nos. 8 and 9 are well-recorded on Naxos (Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra), No. 10 is available on RCA (New World Symphony), No. 11 is presented on this release and No. 12 was released on Cypres (Liege Philharmonic Orchestra).
Choros No. 11 for piano and orchestra:
As mentioned above, Choros No. 11 is the longest of the series. It is divided into three parts; however the three parts are performed without a break. This Choros is not only massive due to its length, but also for its breadth of themes and for the large forces called upon to play the work. Like a rainforest teeming with life, Choros No. 11 is abundantly filled with melodic material, which is often densely layered within Villa-Lobos highly polyphonic style. Such material really is not developed by Villa-Lobos, but rather once a theme is heard Villa-Lobos moves onto a different idea, almost as if the composer is taking the listener on a journey, on which it is uncertain what is around the next bend. The end result is that you probably will not be humming many of the themes after listening to this disc, but the experience itself is highly entertaining.
This is some of the most colorfully orchestrated music I have heard. Those familiar with Villa-Lobos know to expect glissing trombones, chirping woodwinds, sensuous strings, scraping guiros, lyrical saxophones and other evocative orchestral effects. The piano part itself is highly virtuosic, and the style of the writing is similar to that of a concerto, as the role of the piano is to contrast the orchestral themes, as opposed to support them. My favorite part is this Choros is the highly seductive melody of the central section, introduced by the piano at the beginning of the second track.
As Villa-Lobos stated, rhythm is an important element of the Choros, with driving ostinatos, aggressive syncopations and "call and answer" motifs prevailing throughout the work. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra really attacks this rhythmically charged work and seems to relish every minute of it, from the energetic opening to the intensely powerful and incredibly complex conclusion.
This is a fascinating piece of music. If you consider yourself a fan of twentieth century music, you should really check out the works of Villa-Lobos, probably starting with the Bachianas, then moving on to the Choros, then to the symphonies. If you are a Villa-Lobos veteran, this release should definitely make its way onto your music shelf.