The conventional wisdom concerning the 11 symphonies of Villa-Lobos (one, the 5th, is lost) is not positive. Critics either dismiss these works outright or damn them with faint praise. This is in spite of a fairly strong list of recordings, beginning with two versions of early works conducted by the composer, and coming to a climax in a complete series from the Californian conductor Carl St. Clair for cpo. The latter series (recorded earlier in this century) was fairly well received, but didn't help the symphonies to 'break through' even though Villa-Lobos's stock has risen so much in the past twenty years. I must admit that the symphonies don't feature much even in my own (very significant) Villa-Lobos listening.
So, are these works like the Bachianas Brasileiras with Bach or Brazil taken away? Or are they unfairly neglected masterworks from a genius of orchestration? Brazil's top orchestra, OSESP, and a senior Brazilian conductor, Isaac Karabtchevsky, aim to find out in a brand new project to record this music once again. It's an oddity that until now there have been no Villa-Lobos symphonies recorded by Brazilian orchestras, though we have recordings from Stuttgart, Paris, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Bratislava and Tenerife. We'll see if home advantage can tip the scales.
The first disc is very encouraging, with two works written towards the end of the Second World War. Villa-Lobos was at the peak of his powers when he wrote his 6th (1944) and 7th Symphonies (1945). In those two years he wrote the last two of his great Nationalist series, the Bachianas Brasileiras. As well, he explored more abstract music through his composition of the 8th & 9th String Quartets, the String Trio and the Duo for violin & viola.
I'm impressed with the 6th Symphony especially, and like that Villa-Lobos used 'millimetrization' (translating the contours of mountains into melodies) to build his melodies. George Gershwin used the same technique in some of his music. The 6th, with its craggy lines and shifting harmonies, seems a particularly cogent piece of music, considering Villa-Lobos's reputation for shapelessness and his occasional missteps into banality. This deserves to be Villa's most popular symphony. The 7th isn't as well-balanced or light on its feet, and at nearly 40 minutes goes on a bit long for its material. But OSESP and Karabtchevsky provide strong, idiomatic performances that show that even without Bach or Brazilian folklore, this music sounds only like Villa-Lobos. This music will never come close to the Bachianas, the Choros, or the great tone poems, but it's definitely worth a listen.