Villa-Lobos par lui-meme (Review)


VL par lui-meme CD cover



"... direct deed is the most meaningful reflection."

- Bill Evans 


June 1996

This indispensable set of six CDs comes from EMI France, and is entitled "Villa-Lobos par lui-meme." The six-CD set consists mainly of orchestral music conducted by Villa-Lobos himself. The following works are included: 

  • Descombrimento do Brasil (4 Suites). 
  • Invocacao em defesa da Patria. 
  • Bachianas Brasileiras 1-9. 
  • Choros No. 2, 5, 10, 11. 
  • 2 Choros (bis) for violin & cello. 
  • Momoprecoce (fanasia for piano & orchestra.) 
  • Piano concerto no. 5. 
  • Symphony no. 4 "A Vitoria." 


The set also includes a fascinating nine-minute talk by Villa-Lobos entitled "Qu'est-ce qu'un Choros?" recorded at the Club des 3 Centres in Paris.   
Over the years, these recordings have been criticized on a number of counts. The following excerpt of a review in the New Penguin guide to compact discs and cassettes makes the main points: "It is good to have on EMI's historic References label this generous collection of the composer's own recordings, not immaculate in performance and with depressingly dry and boxy recording, but full of colour and life."   
As to the sound, a quick comparison between any of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras and a modern recording by, for example, Enrique Batiz and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (HMV CDS7 47901-8, recorded in the mid-1980's) will show the technical constraints Villa-Lobos was working under. That the performances aren't always "immaculate" brings up questions of authenticity and style. I've already quoted, in the discography section, something that Villa-Lobos said: "Records are for the moment, the temperamental instant!" Too much polish and precision is bound to be the enemy of the greatest works of Villa-Lobos. 


In this set, then, we find "colour and life," rather than a lifeless perfection. We find authenticity as well, not forgetting that a composer will not necessarily be able to coax the perfect sound he heard in his head from the orchestra he has at his disposal. The abilities of the orchestra and the conducting competence of the composer are factors as well. Villa-Lobos may well have exaggerated the improvisational character of some pieces to counteract a natural tendency on the part of the players towards a slick elegance. There are stories of Villa-Lobos, a competent soloist on a wide variety of instruments, demonstrating for the French player a particular passage. The point of most of the stories relates to rhythm, how a phrase should sound in its context.   
The two styles we're talking about are not mutually exclusive, and in fact there is a kind of aesthetic touchstone in much of Villa-Lobos' music that relates to the dynamic between (European, modernist) sophistication and (Brazilian, popular) colour and life. In an essay entitled "Improvisation in Jazz," printed as notes to the classic 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue (Columbia VCK-40579,) Bill Evans discusses this very question:   
"Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording."   
Solving the problem in a jazz context is a difficult enough feat; the Miles Davis recording is revolutionary in this regard. Miles Davis as leader of a group of great instrumentalists is working in a tradition that goes back at the most fifty years. Villa-Lobos waving his baton in front of a Paris orchestra, by contrast, is working in a direct line that is centuries-old, going back to the seventeenth century, with Lully banging his staff on the floor (and his foot, but that's another story.) The task Villa-Lobos has set himself is too great to solve in these sessions; it is a task that remains for conductors of Villa-Lobos.  
Villa-Lobos conductsPicture source: 
Museu Villa-Lobos
This set has all the colour and life Villa-Lobos could coax from the orchestra in their many recording sessions, with the additional charm of nostalgia, of Paris in the 50's, of the sound of 78's and LP's. Modern digital recordings, with their silent backgrounds, bright "natural" sound, and their rich strings and solid winds, with all players in tune and in time, have their own compensations. The Villa-Lobos lover will probably want both.   
I have a few miscellaneous comments to finish off the review. The set includes a fine essay by Pierre Vidal entitled "Visages de Villa-Lobos" - or as Denis Ogan's good translation has it: "The many faces of Villa-Lobos." Vidal himself spent time with the master during the May 1958 sessions:   
"Visiting Villa-Lobos at the Hotel Bedford in Paris in May 1958, we found ourselves in the presence of a man of typically Brazilian cordiality who knew at once how to set his companions at ease."   
These personal reminiscences help us in putting together a better picture of Villa-Lobos the man. Vidal's essay as well puts Villa Lobos in his French context, with references to Florent Schmitt, Ravel, Honegger, Roussel, Poulenc, Dukas, Debussy and D'Indy.   
A final word: in spite of nearly forty years of many excellent performances, Victoria de Los Angeles in the Aria (Cantilena) of the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 still sounds great. This version remains my personal favourite, though I enjoy listening to many other worthy recordings, most notably by Bidu Sayão, Barbara Hendricks, Jill Gomez, Dawn Upshaw, Anna Moffo and Renee Fleming.