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This review is from: Villa-Lobos: Symphonies 3 & 4 (War And Victory) (Isaac Karabtchevsky, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.573151) (Audio CD)
Who would have thought few years ago that we would have multiple recordings of Villa-Lobos' symphonies to compare but here we are with a series that looks like being the best yet. The Carl St.Clair series on CPO was the one to beat and there was little to choose between his and Karabtchevsky's 6th and 7th with St Clair incisive and Kabatchevsky more expansive. These two earlier symphonies very much benefit from Karabtchevsky's expansiveness that sacrifices nothing of the works rhythmic and harmonic vitality.
These early "war" symphonies owe much to Debussy's modal harmonies without ever sounding like Debussy. Both symphonies have some of the feel of the russian nationalists: the colour of Rimsky Korsakov and the modal harmonies of Mussorgsky. the Scherzo of the third even has a hint of Vaughan Williams about it.
The overt passion and colour here is at odds with the muted European responses to World War I; think also of Nielsen's great Fifth, for example or Vaughan Williams' Pastoral. Few would paint their colours so plainly to the mast as Villa Lobos does - he's cheering on France all the way! The French anthem is repeated several times across both symphonies. This is war drama played out from a safe distance: not particularly subtle or profound but fine music all the same; wonderfully orchestrated, structurally sound, harmonically and thematically memorable.
Even so these quite broad readings provide some genuinely moving passages with the slow lament in the Third Symphony particularly impressive. The opening two movements don't descend to melodrama either with the war references not swamping the musical argument. The finale, admittedly, does throw in the kitchen sink, but then, according to the movement subtitles this is where the battle begins. There are super impositions of the French and Brazilian anthems and a clammer that veers between Mahler's Sixth and many of Charles Ives's densest works. This finale could ruin the balance of the whole were it not for the coupling that makes it seem part of a sequence as the opening movement of the Fourth sets off from this very starting point, albeit more fleet of foot. Sat together these two symphonies complement each other very well and the CPO alternative couplings make with later more neo classical symphonies are less illuminating. It is tantillising to think how the lost Fifth symphony might have sounded and how many thematic connections there may have been with the other two. The Third doesn't feel a complete work to me but playing the two works continuously has the feel of one bigger symphony, sharing thematic material: in other words, a symphony in eight movements. If the third is quite pictorial the Fourth is more thematically integrated whilst still allowing for viivd passages and transformations: think of the distant playful band changing the lugubrious mood in the finale; it's magical.
The Fourth Symphony carries less of the emotional drama that the Third does but conflicts here are being resolved albeit not in an overly triumphalist way. Karabtchevsky's broad approach makes more sense of the Fourth than the preceding versions with Diemecke's perfunctory approach on Dorian with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra sounding like a completely different and immature piece. The supposedly demonstration sound on that recording only made the brass sound thin and artificial. This Naxos recording, without being quite demonstration quality (still very good though), allows instruments and the orchestra as a whole more space to breathe and the symphony is so much more effective as a result.
Villa-Lobos' symphonies are often dense and the later ones use shorter, more elusive motifs than the earlier ones. For that reason the early symphonies presented here might be a good starting point for curious listeners. In all his symphonies though, repeated listening show that however much he flouted symphonic formal rules, Villa Lobos certainly knew what he was doing and the whole makes sense. Isaac Karabtchevsky is keenly aware of the music's architecture and with the aid of a fine orchestra and spacious sound he appears to be producing the best series to date. Villa-Lobos was no symphonic light weight and those critics that dismiss his music as rather uneven are guilty of dismissing it simply because there's just so much of it to get through: how many other composers could claim to be entirely consistent in quality anyway? Often the dullest ones. No serious lover of the symphony should ignore this series. So, if you haven't already, give these symphonies a chance and make this Naxos series your place to begin. I notice too that the download price for this recording is less than half of that for the 6th and 7th so there's another reason to snap it up: And, no, Naxos aren't paying me to say this!