This CD brings together color pieces from three distinct periods in Villa-Lobos' musical career. "Uirapuru," from 1917, was Villa-Lobos' response to the visit of the Ballets Russes to Brazil in that year. It is Villa-Lobos' "Firebird," complete with its own legendary bird, the Uirapuru, which sings an enchanting love song deep in the jungle. Considered to be the King of Love, the Uirapuru was hunted by young men of jungle villages. The scenario that Villa-Lobos created for the ballet concerns such a hunt, with fantastical happenings along the way. Like much of Villa-Lobos' orchestral music, the ballet uses native Latin American instruments such as the coco and tamborim. It also has a part for a weird instrument called the violinophone, "a violin amplified by the attachment of a resonating horn," according to the notes to this recording. The music filters Debussy (whom Villa-Lobos admired and emulated) through the lens of Stravinsky and does so very effectively, given that this largely self-taught musician could have known his European musical sources only at a remove before he decided to travel to France in the 1920s to broaden his experience.
The Bachianas Brasilieras series supposedly pays homage to Bach, whom Villa-Lobos apparently loved above all other composers, but for me, it's pretty much a stretch to find Bach in most of these pieces. No. 4, from 1939-41, included on this disc has a classical sort of grace and transparency of texture and is a lovely work, but in a piece supposedly inspired by Bach, there is precious little polyphonic writing.
"The Emperor Jones" is based on the symbolist play of the same name by Eugene O'Neill. The play tells the story of a black convict who is stranded on a Caribbean island and sets himself up as a dictator over its people until the rebel against him. The ballet was penned in 1956 and so is among Villa-Lobos' last works. It is colorfully orchestrated in the manner of Uirapuru and includes some slightly eerie wordless solos for a tenor and soprano (not credited on the CD). I guess "The Emperor Jones" could thought of as Villa-Lobos' "Rite of Spring." But despite a repeated drumbeat from the timpanist, representing Jones's own haunted imagination, and despite the inclusion of highly rhythmic dances that suggest the jungle in which Jones finds himself, this is a pretty civilized treatment of the play. It doesn't capture the implicit savagery or that haunted, hunted quality that you feel even as you read the play (and while I've never seen it performed, I imagine the feeling would be greatly pronounced in a good production). The end of the ballet reminds me of the "steamy" conclusion of Villa-Lobos' own popular "Little Train of the Caipiria," an ending that seems far too upbeat given the tragic, or at least decidedly downbeat, ending of the play. So as a ballet version of O'Neill's drama, I find the music somewhat wanting, but as sheer music, Villa-Lobos' work is interesting and quite enjoyable.
Jan Wagner and his well-drilled Odense Orchestra are perfect for this assignment, it seems. No cold, northern European approach taken here. The music in their hands is full of sun and tropical color. The playing is really admirable; the Odense Symphony does not sound at all like a mere regional orchestra. Bridge provides excellent sound as well-very clear and impactive without any highlighting of the various coloristic instruments Villa-Lobos employs. In all, a very attractive disc.