Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Ciclo Brasilero is one of Villa-Lobos’ most important contributions to the piano literature. It therefore was a natural choice for inclusion a concert honouring the 50th Anniversary of the death of Heitor Villa-Lobos which dazzling soprano Filipa von Eck and I will be giving in Maputho (Mozambique) on 17 July 2009.

One often reads about the Brazilian rhyhms, Indian folk melodies and other “exotic” elements in his music. It would however be to underestimate the composer to view him as a quaint colourist. His works reflect depth of study and an immersion in contemporary compositional techniques. That said, it has been of immense value for me as a performer, to encounter the actual music that inspired the composer. Some of the traditional dances have given me insight into the sound-world which I had only glimpsed before. This experience was similar to the discovery of the music of Hungarian folk musicians, which transformed the way I performed the music of Bela Bartok. My experience of performing other Latin-American music, such as that of Piazzolla and Gardel, have also given me a certain rhythmic freedom I might not have had in the past. While the piano music is strictly notated, an air of improvisation can be felt in his works, and I think the element of movement, of the dance, is central to much of his music.

Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) wrote a vast amount of music, across a very broad range of genres. A list of his works reveals an enormous body of piano music. His complete piano music easily covers 7 or 8 CD’s – much more than music by other “piano-specialists” such as, for example, Godowsky, Scriabin or Medtner. Given such a large output, it is inevitable that some works will be weaker than others, but I believe that it is only with regular performance of the entire oeuvre that the strongest works will emerge.

Some works are already well-known. Three collections of short pieces called  “Prole do Bebê” (1916, 1918 and 1921) – each devoted to a different aspect of a child’s imagination – have established themselves in recital programmes and as prescribed literature for examinations and competitions. There are the Choros 1, 2 and 5, and the 4th Bachianas Brasileiras, some original and some piano arrangements of orchestral works. Piano transcriptions of some of his popular Guitar works such as the preludes exist, but I have not seen the sheet music available.

Some works are so difficult as to put them out of reach of most pianists, and are consequently not as well-known as they deserve to be. One of these is the massive Rudepoema (1921-1926) – a vast 23 minute summation of the composer’s pianistic style. The work’s name derives form a pun by the composer on the name of Arthur Rubinstein – nicknamed “Rudi” and the Portuguese adjective for “Rude”, “Savage” or “Rough”. One can readily hear, in the composer’s words, the “exuberance of storms in the virgin forests of Brazil”. A few recordings exist, but to my mind, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s version is the greatest. I was lucky enough to find Youtube clips where you can follow the score while you listen to his performance. The excellence of this interpretation has however cured me of all desire to even attempt this piece.

Hamelin's CD of Villa-Lobos

Hamelin's CD of Villa-Lobos

Hamelin’s version of “Rudepoema” – Part 1

Hamelin’s version of “Rudepoema” – Part 2

However, there is plenty of music left in his output that I would tackle. In Mozambique I will also be playing Villa-Lobos’ “Capricho Op.49”, in what appears to be a transcription by the composer of a work originally for Piano and Cello. The only recording of it I could track down was by cellist Rebecca Rust. A charming salon-work, it is not particularly “Brazilian” in style, but in fact has the feel of a Parisian waltz.

Ciclo Brasileiro is very popular as well. It’s unmistakeable Brazilian Folk-flavour is much deeper than mere exoticism. They are fun to play and repay the hard-work as audiences respond to their brilliance and virtuosity as well as the fresh colours and harmonies. It is awash in the romanticism apparent in his works of the 1930’s.

The “Brazilian Cycle” is made up of four movements:

  1. Plantio do caboclo (The Peasant’s sowing)
  2. Impressoes seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician)
  3. Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Desert)
  4. Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian)

1. Plantio do caboclo (The Peasant’s sowing)

Played here by Paulo Brasil the hymn-like melody is truly hypnotic. The ostinato pattern in the right hand is typical of much of the composer’s writing, but I personally would have preferred a more tender quai-impressionistic approach in the modulatory middle section. The closing is magically handled.

2. Impressoes seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician)

This beautiful waltz is played magnificently by Clelia Iruzun, one of my favourite Villa-Lobos interpreters. It combines a large romantic pianistic idiom with a sense of improvisation. I have simply fallen in love with this piece and it needs to be heard more often in concerts.

3. Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Forrest)

This virtuosic and entertaining showpiece conjures up festive hustle and bustle in a Toccata style that reminds perhaps of Ginastera. Sonia Rubinsky recorded the complete works of Villa-Lobos, and her version of this piece is impressive. Despite the percussive effects of the alternating chords, the work needs a balance with more lush textures. I feel that Alfred Heller’s version, for all its strengths, is too dry for my liking. Clelia Iruzun’s performance is very engaging and exciting, and she manages the return to the opening material though careful use of the third pedal and a big ritardando that is not in the score, however it totally convinces me. Her playing in the 5/4 middle section is impassioned, revealing great depths of emotion and drama. Great playing.

CD notes in the Rubinsky Complete Edition (Vol.3) states that this piece is based on the Brazilian traditional dance, the “Batuque”. From a version of a Batuque that I could find that convinces as authentic, it appears that the rhythm Villa-Lobos uses is an accurate transcription. The ritual element is enhanced by repeated cycles and melody is secondary to the importance of the alternating percussive patterns. Another version of a Batuque focuses attention on the percussionists. The vocal interpolations from the drummers themselves have given my fresh inspiration for interpretting this piece as more than just something flashy to impress the audience.

4. Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian)

Described by Villa-Lobos as his “musical portrait” – a reference to himself as a “White Indian” – this piece seems to be more deliberately “exotic” than the others in the series. Some have commented that the “white” in the title refers to the white notes of the piano that seem to dominate in the writing, or that Villa-Lobos “encountered an Indian in the Brazilian forest who constantly danced and died”, that inspired the piece. Obviously designed as a showpiece, the most significant technical difficulty other than the alternating hand movements is to bring out the melody within the large chords. Sonia Rubinsky gives an impressive performance, but perhaps this work is meant to impress rather than move the listener. Gustavo Romero gives a characteristically flashy performance that is impressive for its attention to details such as dynamic variations although it is difficult to define a concept of traditional phrasing in this work.

A big difficulty is finding scores of Latin American composers in South Africa. Here’s hoping that libraries will make use of this 50 year anniversary to stock up.

A sizeable collection of Villa-Lobos piano music is available at Sheetmusicplus.com: 166 pages. Published by Amsco Publications (MS.AM41732).ISBN 0825640628

It contains the following works:

Alma Brasileira – Choros No. 5
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 1. Preludio
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 2. Coral
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 3. Aria
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 4. Dansa
Caixinha De Musica Quebrada
Carnaval Das Criancas Brasileiras – 1. A Manha Da Pierrette
Carnaval Das Criancas Brasileiras – 2. O Chicote Do Diabinho
Ciclo Brasileiro – 1. Plantio Do Caboclo
Ciclo Brasileiro – 2. Impressoes Seresteiras
Ciclo Brasileiro – 3. Festa No Sertao
Ciclo Brasileiro – 4. Dansa Do Indio Branco
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 1. Acordei De Madrugada
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 2. A Mare Encheu
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 3. A Roseira
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 4. Manquinha
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 5. Na Corda Da Viola
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 1. O Limao
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 2. Carambola
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 3. Pobre Cega
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 4. Pai Francisco
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 5. Xo Passarinho!
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 6. Sinh’ Aninha
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 7. Vestidinho Branco
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 1. Laranjeira Pequenina
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 2. Pombinha, Rolinha
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 3. O Cir
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 4. A Velha Que Tinha Nove Filhas
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 5. Contante
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 6. O Castelo
Poema Singleo
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 1. Moreninha
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 2. Mulatinha
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 3. O Polichinelo
Simples Coletanea – 1. Valsa Mistica
Simples Coletanea – 2. Em Um Berco Encantado
Simples Coletanea – 3. Rhodante
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 1. Idilio Na Rede
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 2. Uma Camponeza Cantadeira
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 3. Alegria Na Horta

An interesting site by Leonor Lains, with biographical details, phots and quotes can be found HERE.