Sergio Gallo's Mostly Villa-Lobos Disc

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April 30, 2009

Gallo coverThe new CD by Brazilian pianist Sergio Gallo is titled Mostly Villa-Lobos, and subtitled 20th Century Piano Music from the Americas.  The second title is more accurate: there's a great range of music here, from simple and heart-felt folk-inspired miniatures, to clever atonal character pieces, to one of the biggest, most difficult and most complex works in the 20th century piano repertoire.

But I like the main title, too, because the three works by Heitor Villa-Lobos that end the disc represent the real centre of gravity for this cleverly-designed programme.   Villa-Lobos is batting clean-up in this group.

Ernesto Nazareth's waltz Epônina has a naively romantic quality (it's named for a girl), and reminds one more than a bit of Chopin.  Gallo captures just the right quality (faintly hot-house salon-ish) for this piece, which is important, since it sets the stage for the whole programme to come.

João de Souza Lima was a friend of Villa-Lobos, who dedicated a number of his important works to this excellent pianist and composer.  Souza Lima participated in the great Excursão Artistica Villa-Lobos of 1931 - the trip through the backwoods of São Paulo and neighboring states.  Souza Lima lived for a while in France (he and Arthur Rubinstein performed at a number of the important concerts that introduced Villa's music to the musical cognoscenti of Paris in the mid-1920s).  So his waltz Maria that Gallo has chosen to play next shows a vast increase in sophistication.  Gallo, who studied with Souza Lima, points out the Ravellian influence in his liner notes as well as his playing.

Next come three Latin American composers with pretty strongly nationalist musical leanings: the Brazilians Barozo Netto (born in 1881, of Villa-Lobos's generation), Camargo Guarnieri (born in 1907, of the next generation) and the Cuban composer (born in 1847, from a generation before Villa) Ignacio Cervantes.   Netto seems to have something pretty important to say, though I suppose you can't tell too much from such a short piece.  The only Netto pieces I've heard before were a couple of songs sung by Bidu Sayão, but Minha Terra played by Gallo has certainly piqued my interest to hear more.  Of course, Minha Terra ("My Land") is not only in a nationalist style, it's about nationalism.   So Gallo plays this piece from the heart.

M. Camargo Guarnieri is a master of the pianistic and characteristic miniature.  His Toccata is a musical portrait of the pianist Guiomar Novaes, much in the same way that Villa-Lobos paints a picture of Rubinstein in his Rudepoema.  Ignacio Cervantes' music seems to be more about charm and virtuosity than the more personal pieces we've heard so far.  But this little palette-cleansing showpiece-suite comes off well too, with Gallo's light touch and a nice-sounding instrument recorded in an admirably transparent way.

Coming North of the Border and closer to our own time, to the music Cowell and Muczynski, shakes things up nicely.  I've heard more than a few Latin American piano discs with not quite enough variety for an hour's worth of music on disc.  Cowell seems to be as much of a kindred spirit of Villa-Lobos's as does Charles Ives (it was Aaron Copland, I believe, who first made that comparison).  Both Villa-Lobos and Cowell (who was 10 years younger than Villa) were innovators of the piano.  Villa-Lobos experimented with the prepared piano at about the same time that Cowell wrote his texture experiment Aeolian Harp (1923), though the classical guitar, the string quartet, and the super-big orchestra became the stages for Villa's farthest-out sound experiments.

Gallo's liner notes quote Tcherepnin's comments on Muczynski's piano works' "personal drama and lyricism".  From extremely simple materials Muczynski brings a real feeling of forward momentum.  Muczynski knows just what he wants to say in each of these Preludes, and Gallo knows exactly how to say it.

So to Villa-Lobos.   A Maré Encheu (The Full Tide) is from the first book of Villa's Guia PraticoAlfred Heller feels that the "mixed ethnic background" of this beautiful folk-tune is important; he finds in this piece traces of "Saxon, Hispanic, and African" origins.  As more and more pianists discover the great music included in the Guia Pratico books, we'll get a chance to hear different ways of presenting the subtle effects Villa-Lobos finds in this deceptively simple material.

This is the second time that Gallo has recorded Impressões Seresteiras.  I don't have his earlier CD available right now to compare, but I'm assuming there are new things in this amazing piece that he's discovered on further exploration.  The piece stands well alone, though it's also an important part of the Ciclo Brasileiro: four distinctive character pieces that make up a portrait of Brazil.  There's a balance in Impressões between passion and irony which Gallo gets just right.  Like Nazareth Villa knew and admired Chopin, and like Souza Lima he spent time with Ravel in Paris.  Both composers are here, but as sublimated as Bach is in the Bachianas Brasileiras. 

The emphasis of Gallo's Rudepoema is more on the poetic side than the rude side.  This isn't as savage and angry as Hamelin's versions, or Rubinsky's.  This big piece can handle both interpretations - it reminds me of Walt Whitman: "I am large, I contain multitudes."  (Whitman could have been writing about Villa-Lobos, or about the young Arthur Rubinstein.)   By the way, I hate it when critics refer to "mere virtuosity".  I certainly understand that there's much more to musicanship than moving your fingers really, really fast, but control of the keyboard with this many notes jammed into 24 minutes is a major accomplishment!

Sergio Gallo's new disc rewards repeat listenings.  The pieces that were new to me sound more interesting each time I hear them, and I look forward to hearing even more of the Cowell, Muczynski and Netto pieces especially.  The works I know really well sound fresh and new.  You can't ask for more than that from a small round piece of plastic!