A Fine Showcase for Viilla-Lobos and Danish Musicians,
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This review is from: Villa Lobos - The Emperor Jones (Audio CD)
This is an excellent recording and a good place to get an overview of Villa-Lobos' orchestral writing because the three works span his career with "Uirapuru" being an early ballet, the "Bachianas" belonging to his middle career and "The Emperor Jones" to his later years. What is striking is how consistent his music voice was. His musical output was vast and many critics like to pointout how variable the quality of his work was but I've yet to find a work of his that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed.
From the album cover it's clear that the early ballet, "Uirapuru" is the main selling point, even though all three works are of similar length. It's tale of a mythical Amazonian bird, written around 1917, whilst evocative of its location it does conjure up Stravinsky's "Firebird" and "Song of the Nightingale" and it's hard not to think Villa-Lobos wasn't influenced by both. It is still a striking piece and wonderfully scored. The Odense orchestra under Venezuelan conductor, Jan Wagner, turn in an excellent performance and its fine sound engineering make a case for this being the best available version. If this is the standard for a provincial Danish orchestra then orchestral playing is in rude health there.
"Bachianas Brasileiras No 4" has much attractive music but has always seemed an oddity to me with the restrained Bach like strings in the opening movement giving way to more sentimental and then some quite heavily scored passages in the following movements. The playing here is very beautiful in the opening movement and Wagner takes the next two movements at a slow pace. A strange thing happens in the second "Coral" movement when no tam tams or cymbals are to be heard in the big climax. This isn't a sound engineering fault; it seems that the conductor chose to omit them in order to retain some balance with the preceding movement. I think this was a good move and the whole piece works well overall, even if it is out of step with the two ballets. There is a piano solo version of the piece on BIS in the complete set of "Choros" and "Bachianas", which is an excellent alternative.
"The Emperor Jones" was a new work to me and was the main attraction for in purchasing the album. I wasn't disappointed: a ballet lasting over twenty minutes - based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, it frames the earlier "Uirapuru" very well. The story is a more human and disturbing one than "Uirapuru" so there is less a sense of fantasy but shares some of the same exotic scoring combined with some memorable themes. Harmonically it sounds like big boned Ravel combined with later Prokofiev use of brass and Villa Lobos' mastery of colour. The story upon which the ballet is based is much darker than the music in this ballet enven if the march theme supposedly epicts the Emperor's torment. The final chord blazes triumphantly like last chord of Stravinsky's Symphony In Three Movements: you'd be forgiven for not knowing that the story ends with the Emperor's murder. Frankly I enjoy the music too much to worry about that.
All three pieces are very effective and, certainly, in the case of the two ballets, you'll be hard pressed to find better versions anywhere. Despite the missing percussion in the "Bachianas" this is a true five star recording.