This is the beginning of a series that will include all of Villa-Lobos' surviving symphonies (his Fifth was lost). It is the second such venture and I'm delighted to see the OSESP take this on after their pretty impressive (to me at least) Choros and Bachianas series on the BIS label. The symphonies have never achieved the same popularity but most certainly deserve to be taken seriously. I read one reviewer describe his symphonies as Partitas, following the same formula and reflecting his love of Bach. Well here is the formula: Opening Allegro; Weighty Slow Movement; Lively Scherzo and Fast Finale. For such an outgoing, all-encompassing type of composer this might suggest much narrowed horizons. Andrew Clements in the Guardian described these two symphonies as "neo-classical". With that in mind I think we sorely need a definition of what constitutes "neo-classicism - number 7 is closer to Mahler and Ives than Stravinsky. Nearly all the symphonies do follow that plan but what those four movements contain do their best to avoid any formulas from start to finish. You'll struggle to pick out Sonata, rondo, passacaglia or any other conventional symphonic forms. What you get is closer to the all-embracing view that you might associate with Charles Ives, albeit with a harmonic language that owes more to European convention. Listen to both symphonies often enough and you will begin to pick up Villa-Lobos' take on symphonic development: it isn't a complete free for all.
His symphonies were composed, effectively, in two batches: The first five around World War One and just after, then the second batch from the end of World War Two to 1957. The first batch have more late romantic and impressionist harmonies whilst the later take on board a semblance of neo classicism but include atonal and polytonal harmonies sat side by side with often sensuous modal themes: it's a very heady mix.
The two symphonies on this first recording belong to the later batch and, if you're new to them, hardly represent an easy introduction. They're certainly worth sticking with though. Both symphonies in their different ways celebrate the power of nature. The Sixth is perhaps the easier one to familiarise at first. It is thematically based on a metric representation of the outline of a Brazilian mountain range. This sounds like quite an abstract exercise and does result in a more restrained work than usual from Villa-Lobos. It does still sound like no one else. There is a sense of the austere and remote at times. Villa-Lobos's music is often quite pantheistic, revelling in the lush Amazon vegetation, sounds and landscape. Here we have the sparer textures of the mountain range. Spare Villa-Lobos still sounds lush compared to most other composers though. It is still a calmer work than its extravagant successor.
The Seventh was a work that the composer valued very highly: Having said that, with the exception of the gigantic Oratorio-like Tenth, Villa-Lobos reined in its opulence in the following symphonies. The Seventh follows the same formal outlay as most of the others - quick -slow -scherzo-quick but whilst few of his symphonies could be described as restrained or under stated, this particular symphony sets out to be one of his most ambitious statements. It reminds me of his late ballet "Genesis" with its lush but primeval evocation of the Amazon but on a grander scale. Villa-Lobos called it, grandly, "an odyssey for peace" so like numbers 3 to 5 it has a war connection but hte peace sounds more like removal from humanity into the teeming life of the forests and Brazilian landscape. There are similarities to some of the Choros': numbers 8, 10 and 12 come to mind. Like all these works this shows off his considerable skills using the orchestra.
The symphony is scored for a huge orchestra, with a large wind contingent, which is given a thorough work out. Textures are dense and opulent from the start. Traditional symphonic argument is pretty hard to identify but there is some and repeated lsitenings will reveal more. The effect is of a huge tapestry and wash of sound carrying all before it. The opening movement is perhaps the most extravagant of all, harking back in its opening to the Amazon soundscape of his earlier "Uirapuru" but the effect of all four movements is of a very rich orchestral palette, constantly shifting. It is almost a hedonistic work where the listener is invited to wallow in the moment and be pulled along by the sheer visceral energy of the piece. Yes there is thematic development but if you come to Villa-Lobos the chances are that's n ot what you're listening out for.
Once again, the slow movement carries the greatest expressive weight veering from a sensuous opening to a grandiose climax: it is one of the finest he ever wrote. The scherzo and finale both carry on where the opening movement left of though in less dissonant fashion. The finale refuses to come to a simple conclusion shifting endlessly; thematically and tonally right to the end.
If this symphony sounds like chaos then it's meant to be: Villa-Lobos was quite capable of writing formally disciplined music - try his excellent series of string quartets. The formal freedom and worship of nature isn't a million miles from later Sibelius - it's just a very different landscape. Whereas the formal freedom is hard earned with Sibelius the music just seems to pour from Villa-Lobos without restraint. Let's be clear; Sibelius's later symphonies are superior to Villa-Lobos but they're still remarkable works. Many of Villa-Lobos' symphonies share this opulent palette but this work feels like a personal artistic credo.
A set is available as CD only conducted by Carl St Clair with the Stuttgart RSO on CPO. That is an excellent set, superbly engineered and incisively played. This new Naxos set has a very hard act to follow. If you want a downloadable version, however, the Naxos version is the only one available. There's no problem with the OSESP coping with this music and Naxos' sound engineering is certainly very good if not quite on the exceptional BIS level. It's certainly not a reason to dock any stars. It is early days but the CPO versions of 6 and 7 are perhaps marginally preferable but this first Naxos recording is still very good and worth the investment. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series.
If you are willing to embark on collecting the whole series you might wish to wait for the full set to be released as an economical set but I must confess, I can't wait that long. The quality of symphonies might vary but there's always plenty to savour in every one. The chances are you'll need a lie down after hearing the Seventh Symphony. If the sheer extravagance puts you off then rest assured most of its successors are far more concise. Despite that, Villa-Lobos still manages to pack a great deal into symphonies often less than 30 minutes long (no 9 lasts only 19 minutes!). Highlights in the series for me are the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh with the slow movement of the Third being particularly moving. If you're a serious collector of twentieth century symphonies don't miss this.