Two rare composer-conducted compositions the main interest o
Discophage | France | 02/01/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The product info given for this disc is so incomplete as to be deceptive. What you get is :
a) recent recordings of Suite Floral and Danças Africanas, two early Villa Lobos compositions for piano (they were written between 1914 and 1918, and the composer orchestrated the latter as late as 1953), played by Alfred Heller. Add to that Feliz Aniversario (Happy Birthday), a homage to Villa Lobos composed by the same Alfred Heller on the occasion of the composer's 71st birthday - it is deliberately written in the style of Villa Lobos and is made of 71 measures. Exact dates of recordings are not given, but we are told they are digital. There is saturation in the louder dynamics of Suite Floral, and the Danças sound slightly clearer. The Villa Lobos pieces were already published on a previous Etcetera disc, in 1990, with the three Violin and Piano Sonatas (Heitor Villa-Lobos: Violin Sonatas and Piano Suites).
Suite Floral is not entirely typical of Villa Lobos, I find. In fact, I find it very typical of Albeniz, with whiffs of Debussy-Ravel. I knew Danças Africanas in their orchestral guise (see Villa-Lobos: Erosion; Dawn in a Tropical Forest; Danses Africaines; Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 or Villa-Lobos: Symphonic Dances (Rudepoema; Dancas caracteristicas africanas; Danca frenetica; Danca dos mosquitos)). They sound very different with the piano, with more bounce and drive, but they are not essential Villa Lobos.
Heller has credentials as a Villa Lobos pianist. The fine liner notes he contributed reminisce on how he met Villa Lobos in New York in 1956, which initiated a friendship lasting until the composer's death - which, sadly, happened not very long thereafter, at the end of 1959. Still, whatever the legitimacy of Heller, these 20 minutes of not so typical compositions are not the main interest of this disc.
b) historical Villa Lobos-conducted recordings of rare compositions. These are more interesting, despite their (sonic) flaws. Chôros 7 is a Brazilian recording from 1934. The liner notes inform us that "there are some minor additions and slight compositional differences in it made by the composer for the final published version" - what do YOU understand? As the disc's booklet DOES NOT say, the piece is scored for 8 instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, violin, cello and tam-tam. Who the performers are we are not told either. Chôros 7 is lively, jaunty, and has striking touches of instrumentation, as the flute and violin glissando evoking who knows what exotic bird, or a jazzy quasi-guitar passage at the end. The transfer is OK, with presence and minimal surface noise - but it definitely sounds like an old recording, a memory from a distant past. Villa Lobos and his anonymous performers play with more bonhomie and tonal character than the sleek and ultimately bland Ensemble Choros on Ricercar (Villa-Lobos:Choros 2): with Villa Lobos you hear not notes, but dogs barking, birds singing. As far as I know, this is the only composer-conducted recording of this particular Chôros (it is not included in the French EMI 6 CD-set of his own works conducted or supervised by the composer between 1954 and 1958, "Villa-Lobos par lui-même").
"O Papagaio do Moleque" (The Little Boy's Kite) and Emperor Jones after Eugene O'Neill are two ballets written respectively in 1932 (for Serge Lifar) and 1956 (choreographed by José Limòn). They are two superb pieces, lively, rambunctious, exuberant, even unruly at times and rising to heights of dramatic intensity, with all the magnificent touches of orchestration so typical of their composer, including an unexplained (and uncredited) short wordless vocalise for solo baritone in Emperor Jones; Emperor Jones is also quite substantial with its 22-minutes. What we get here are live recordings with the "Symphony of the Air" (Toscanini's former NBC Symphony Orchestra): the Kite is from July 12, 1959 - Villa Lobos' last performance, in which four songs from his "Forest of the Amazons" were also given, unfortunately no reproduced here. We are not given the recording date of Emperor Jones, but presumably it is one of the original performances in 1956, as we are warned that "one can occasionally hear José Limòn and his company dancing on stage". I don't hear the dancers, but in both pieces I do hear mono tapes from the late 50s, and that is a definite drawback. Villa Lobos' lush orchestration cries for modern stereo. Emperor Jones got one, which I haven't heard yet, but given the quality of the composition, no doubt that will soon change (Heitor Villa-Lobos: Orchestral Music). As far as I know, there is no other recording of the Kite.
For all these reasons then, and whatever the interest of these rare and brilliant composer-conducted works, this is really to be taken as a document whose interest is probably limited to the really serious Villa Lobos collector. As hinted, some aspects of the production are amateurish. Page 6 of the booklet there is a photo of a smiling woman holding something like a big score, and the caption indicates that it is "Examiner Elizabeth Mangelsdorf holding one of the old piano rolls Gershwin produced himself" - what that has to do with the present disc I still haven't understood. We also get the photo and complete bio of a Maria Maia, who happens to be the artist who painted the Villa-Lobos portrait on the cover. Knowing that she is a single parent raising two sons, Mateus and Diego, adds tremendously, I must grant, to our knowledge of Villa Lobos and understanding of his music.
TT is 63:15.