Upstairs, Downstairs, Villa-Lobos!

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

At this point in my life I have 1,338 compact discs in my collection containing some 4,500 compositions. I can fit only 1,118 of these CDs in the living room in special shelves designed for them above my stereo equipment. The other 220 have to go downstairs in the recreation room where they remain day after day without ever getting played, waiting for a time when they might be needed for something, anything. Perhaps to illustrate a lecture on "Murdering Your Mother-in-law with Modern Music," or a radio program on "Classical Composers of Outer Mongolia."

Like the old British TV series, "Upstairs, Downstairs," I now have two classes of CDs living in my house. Upstairs composers include most of Brahms, Beethoven, Dvorak, Verdi and Rachmaninov. Relegated to Downstairs are most of Gorecki, Penderecki, Berg, Schoenberg, Sessions, Varese and Honegger, along with some Haydn and Handel. Stamitz would be down there, too, if I allowed him in the house at all. He wins hands down as my least favorite pre-modern composer.

The prolific Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), as you might imagine, is split between the two floors. Upstairs is most definitely for his "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" for soprano and cellos (11 minutes long), and his even shorter (four and a half minutes) "Choros No. 1" for guitar -- both of which I think would make the list of my 100 all-time favorite compositions.

The "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" contains, in my view, one of the most romantically beautiful melodies ever written. Yet, like everything I have ever heard by this composer, it sounds distinctly like his music, and couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's. There are the Brazilian rhythms, the judicious use of dissonance -- just enough to sound contemporary, not so much as to interfere with the listener's pleasure.

I have two recordings I like of this piece: one on EMI (CDC 7 474332) with Barbara Hendricks singing; the other on RCA Victor (09026-68538-2) with Renee Fleming. The EMI recording comes with two longer Bach-influenced Villa-Lobos Brazilian compositions, the "Bachianas Brasileiras" Nos. 1 and 7 performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Enrique Batiz. These pieces would be kept downstairs if they weren't inseparable from the upstairs No. 5, but they aren't bad at all.

The RCA recording is a brand new and very exciting release with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony in the "Bachianas Brasileiras" 4, 5, 7 and 9, as well as the dynamic "Choros No. 10" with the BBC Singers. Talk about Brazilian beats! This piece brings Amazon tribes right through the middle of your living room! And the "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 4, which begins with a soft, sweet Baroque theme, in the next movement introduces a repetitious single-note percussive instrument which imitates the peeping sound of the araponga bird of northeastern Brazil's open country. The same regional influence continues in the last two movements, one of which makes use of an actual folk song.

I have never heard better performances of these pieces, with more attention to detail and clarity of expression, and I find myself liking this CD even more with each playing. I am so pleased to see Michael Tilson Thomas focus attention on this unfairly neglected composer, a man who never gave in to the poisonous influence of Schoenberg's "atonal" movement, as did so many of his contemporaries.

The "Choros No. 1" for guitar is, from beginning to end, one of Villa-Lobos' best melodies -- lyrical, rhythmic, catchy, unforgettable, Brazilian to the core. I have it as performed by Michael Cedric Smith, whose credit is unjustly buried in the program notes on the Newport Classic CD: "Xango: Selected Works by Villa-Lobos" (NPR 85518). The CD also includes several other choros from a set of 14 for different instruments and ensembles which Villa-Lobos composed between 1920 and 1929.

The choros were originally popular pieces played by street musicians in Brazil's large cities. The Newport Classic recording features the Quintet of the Americas and the Sine Nomine Singers, and also includes Villa-Lobos' "Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon," "Fuga," "Cancoes Tipicas Brasileiras," and -- of all things -- a short piece called "New York Skyline." But of all these works, the only one I could whistle on demand would be the "Choros No. 1." Upstairs it goes!

I have another remarkable Villa-Lobos work upstairs, though it may be more difficult to appreciate than BB5 and Choros 1: the composer's First Piano Concerto.

I first heard the First as a child growing up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, listening to classical music radio station WQXR. I still remember the moment when its romantic, lyrical theme first appeared. It is one of those melodies you don't forget; one you can't get out of your mind even if you want to, and I didn't want to.

I went out and purchased the monaural LP, and in the years that followed I literally wore the record out. But I could never find another copy, and I heard it played on the radio only once more in all these years.

My record didn't call this the "First Piano Concerto," incidentally, just the "Piano Concerto," for, at the time, it was the only one Villa-Lobos had written. Many years later, when the world and I switched from LPs to CDs, I hoped that someone would put out this all-but-forgotten modern masterpiece in a state-of-the-art stereo version, but, of course, no one did -- for several years.

Then, all of a sudden, as if by magic, there it was. Not the "Piano Concerto." Not even just the "First Piano Concerto." But a two-CD set of Villa-Lobos' five -- count 'em -- five piano concertos, four of which I had not at all realized he had written!

The set is on London (430 628-2), performed by pianist Cristina Ortiz with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miguel Gomez-Martinez. The sound is not the best I've ever heard, but it is acceptable, and it is wonderful to have that great First Piano Concerto theme performed so well -- without the clicks and clacks of my old LP.

Villa-Lobos' First Piano Concerto is still my favorite, because it combines catchy tunes with real depth. There are other romantic, Villa-Lobos melodies in the other concertos, but they are less successful, to me, than the First. The Fourth, in particular, is chock full of lyric themes, but is a little too syrupy for even my romantic tastes. Yet it's upstairs. It just can't be separated from its relatives.

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