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Hyperion Records

CDA67176 - Villa-Lobos: Piano Music
Wolf’s Head engraved on glass by Helen Millard (b?)
Photography by Simon Bruntnell

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: June 2000
Total duration: 63 minutes 22 seconds


'Marc-André Hamelin’s transcendental sheen and facility bless everything he plays. He makes As três Marias wink and scintillate with an inimitable verve … leaves all others standing' (Gramophone)

'An impressive disc' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Magnificent. Easily the most sophisticated Villa-Lobos piano disc currently in the catalogue' (International Record Review)

'Hamelin presents another hour of hair-raising (not to say spine-tingling) music in performances few could match … awesome' (Classic CD)

‘Enough technical dazzle to satisfy even the most virtuoso-hungry listeners … revelatory. In short, this is a must-buy release. It’s thrillingly exciting. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hamelin grasps [the music’s] sprawl clearly and delivers it with unrivalled perfection of pianistic mechanism. He relishes the delights of the lighter pieces with equal virtuosity' (The Irish Times)

‘Marvellously iridescent in these magnificent interpretations … a fantastically varied succession of miniatures that will hardly fail to please’ (The Magic Flute, USA)

Piano Music
Alnitah  [0'53]
Alnilam  [1'29]
Mintika  [0'54]
Branquinha  [2'06]
Moreninha  [1'24]
Caboclinha  [2'07]
Mulatinha  [1'38]
Negrinha  [1'08]
A Pobrezinha  [1'38]
O Polichinelo  [1'18]
A Bruxa  [2'16]

Villa-Lobos is one of those composers (Haydn and Milhaud are examples of others) whose reputation has suffered through the vastness of their output. Where does the listener start? What are the major works? No problem here! This recital presents the most important of his solo piano works in definitive performances by Marc-André Hamelin.

A one-disc compendium of the essence of Villa-Lobos. The major work is Rudepoema; written in the 1920's for Artur Rubinstein it was said by the composer to be a portrait in music of the dedicatee. The work is a virtuosic tour-de-force and certainly captures the larger than life exuberance of the then young virtuoso; perhaps it could be regarded as a Latin-American equivalent of Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka also dedicated to Rubinstein. The Prole do Bebê (The Baby's Family) suites represent in the first suite various dolls and in the second toy animals. These are not children's pieces, though, but adult reflections on these images. The music has a certain Ravelian clarity but again coloured with the rhythms of South America. O Polichinelo in the first suite is certainly Villa-Lobos' most popular piano piece and frequently crops up as recital encore, a trend begun by Rubinstein. The recital is completed by As Três Marias, three delightful miniatures that actually represent the three stars in the 'belt' of the constellation Orion.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) is the foremost composer Brazil has ever produced and can truly be said to have put his vast homeland on the world musical map, eclipsing beyond measure the efforts of his compatriot predecessors. For many, Villa-Lobos is Brazilian art-music, but one ought not to forget the fertile musical ground, prepared by his precursors, in which his powerful creative personality could flourish.

Nonetheless, despite the early flowering of his natural creative talents, numerous other factors—the influences of native music, a conservatoire training, his vivid experiences in Europe (especially Paris) in the immediate post-war years (he lived mainly in Paris from 1923), his return to Brazil in 1930 to become both a world-famous composer and national music director, and his legendary energy—all enabled Villa-Lobos to produce a vast amount of music, including two-hundred works for piano. Surprisingly, Villa-Lobos was a poor pianist (according to his widow), unable to play a simple scale correctly, yet his writing for the instrument is thoroughly idiomatic and essentially pianistic. In the works on this disc we can find a wide range of expression, from the major achievement that is Rudepoema to the miniature delights of music written with children in mind.

The little suite As Três Marias was composed at the suggestion of Edgar Varèse, whom Villa-Lobos had met in New York in 1939. At the time, Villa-Lobos had composed New York Skyline for orchestra, which arose from a suggestion from a journalist that Villa-Lobos project a photograph onto manuscript paper and use the outline of the image as a melodic line, which he then harmonised and later orchestrated. The resultant score fascinated Varèse, who asked for a similar experiment with regard to the night sky. ‘The Three Marys’ (Três Marias) is the name sometimes given to the three Belt stars (Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka—though the spellings vary) in the constellation Orion. In terms of texture and tessitura, the Três Marias are heard at their best when played consecutively, and when their additional pulse connections can be better appreciated. It should come as no surprise to learn that this little suite soon became one of the most frequently played solo piano works of this composer.

In complete contrast to the massive Rudepoema, the Prole do Bebê suites for piano, written in Rio three years apart, show the composer to have been equally a master of smaller forms. Prole do Bebê (‘The Baby’s Family’) brings together seventeen little pieces in two suites, the first devoted to dolls, and the second to animals. It should be understood that these pieces are not meant for children to play themselves (unless they are very advanced young pianists), but are recollections of childhood, like Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Some of these pieces require a virtuoso technique and a great deal of musical understanding to project them properly. A third suite, with the same title, was apparently written in 1916, but has long been lost. It was never published.

The first suite (1918) is dedicated to Lucilia Villa-Lobos, the composer’s wife whom he had married in 1912. There are strong elements of polytonality—which Villa-Lobos concurrently developed after Milhaud’s lead—in that in various places in the music the right hand plays on the white keys, with the left hand on the black, and the influence of Stravinsky’s Petrushka may not be far away.

Branquinha: The first suite opens with a delicate texture, high on the keyboard, which soon reveals a lyrical theme that seems to contradict the Très animé et gai marking. The form is a simple ABAB with a brief vivo codetta.

Moreninha: This lively little piece, whose dynamic is always half-stated, is akin to a moto perpetuo and is based upon a favourite Villa-Lobos tonality of C sharp. The simplicity of the ABA structure conceals some brilliant and original keyboard writing, and the final chord thwarts all expectations.

Caboclinha: A simple 3+3+2 accompaniment figure sustains this beautifully atmospheric, authentically Brazilian—in its evocation of folksong—piece, with its almost sensuous dance-like melodic fragments creating a crescendo-diminuendo structure.

Mulatinha: The mulatto figure is almost literally a colourful mixture of ideas, mainly pentatonic, but a built-in accelerando does not hide the underlying polytonal basis.

Negrinha: A brilliant toccata-like study similarly contrasts A flat major and C major.

A Pobrezinha: Here our sympathies are invoked, Lentement et mélancolique, for this waif, her soft yet uncertain B–C sharp–E chords supporting rather than troubling her.

O Polichinelo: This was the last music Arthur Rubinstein played in public—his final encore. It was a piece he played—and altered slightly—often, and it recalls, more than any other item in this Suite, Petrushka, three movements from which Stravinsky arranged and dedicated to the virtuoso in 1921, despite one of them being virtually unplayable as written. Villa-Lobos’s ‘Punch’ is playable, and became one of the most famous of all the Brazilian’s shorter works.

A Bruxa: This is a very different piece. The uncertain, troubled atmosphere is all-pervasive, and the three sections—Lente, Preste, Lente—are not wholly organic, except for the consistency of Villa-Lobos’s favourite key of C sharp.

The second suite—1921, pictures of toy animals—is dedicated to the American pianist Aline von Bärentzen, who was born in a suburb of Boston in 1897 and who, as a child prodigy and pupil of Leschetizky in Vienna, gained an excellent reputation as a specialist in Hispanic music. (She went on to make the first-ever recording of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for HMV, with Piero Coppola conducting.) So far as this suite is concerned, in harmonic terms, we note Villa-Lobos’s growing use of tonal custers, rather than polytonality as such. Despite these technicalities, the music continues the charm of the first suite.

A baratinha de papel: The little cockroach here is not very lively; this is a highly atmospheric opening to the suite, slowly unfolding before a spicy tonal cluster ends the piece.

O gatinho de papelao: The cat is dozing, Lentement, and only gradually stretches itself before settling down to a soft cluster of B flat and its adjacent keys.

O camundongo de massa: The mouse has the field to himself—running about, Très animé, here is a toccata-like and relatively extended piece that coalesces into C octaves at the end, as though he has finally been caught.

O cachorrindho de borracha: The dog here is not to be disturbed. This highly imaginative piece is like a brown study, with the animal quietly musing over the day’s events, recollected in serene tranquillity.

O Cavalinho de pau: The horse will not be still. Here, this lively little animal is all-action, getting faster as the time signature changes from 3/4 to 2/4 before a breathless conclusion in an individual G tonality.

O boizinho de chumbo: In contrast, the young ox will not be hurried. Un peu modéré is the order of the day before it ambles to the shed where it retires for the night.

O passarinho de pano: Set almost entirely in the treble, but not hurrying too much, this brilliant piece anticipates Messiaen in extraordinary fashion.

O Ursinho de algodão: The little bear is both playful and gracious, if the composer’s tempo indications are faithfully followed to conjure the appropriate mood of this tonally simple piece in C.

O lobinho de vidro: Finally, the suite concludes with an extended study, very difficult to play, the wolf anticipating Peter’s animal—‘this way, and that’—before a tonal cluster, centred upon E, brings this suite to a wondrous conclusion.

Rudepoema (‘Savage Poem’, 1921–1926) is Villa-Lobos’s largest, most virtuosic and most immediately powerful work for solo piano. It was composed, as we can see, partly during his Paris years, and owes something to the prevailing mood among the avant-garde of the day—most notably Stravinsky, with further Russian influences (Scriabin, Mosolov, Alexander Tcherepnin) alongside aspects of music of the American ‘futurists’ (Ornstein and Antheil) with a polytonalism more especially derived from Milhaud and Martinu.

In other respects Villa-Lobos’s music at this time reflected something of a prevailing mood of savagery, such as is contained, even momentarily, in Le Sacre du Printemps, Percy Grainger’s The Warriors and Holst’s The Planets, or even Copland’s Grohg—a group of works, by no means exhaustive or wholly representative, which contain those elements of primitivism we can observe in Villa-Lobos’s output. However, this is not to suggest that Rudepoema is anything other than an original work, but merely to place it in its historical context in the Paris of the mid-1920s. Of the composers mentioned, it is perhaps Milhaud whose work at this time is more strongly recalled in Rudepoema, both technically in its polytonality and equally inherently, if more superficially, in the South American primitivism of the work—what Wilfrid Mellers has aptly called ‘the savage state’, a state, as we can observe in parts of Charles Ives’s contemporaneous work, not confined to uncivilised man.

One must also recall that this immediate post-war period saw a greater concentration upon the exploration of older, prehistoric civilisations, more notably in the middle east but equally in the Americas—particularly Latin America. This return (no doubt a reaction in some ways to the disastrous horrors with which the European war had confronted modern civilised man) to prehistoric roots can be found reflected in other aspects of modern art of the day: Rudepoema is nothing if not a product of its time. But this astonishing score is far more than that. Technically, as a reasonably lengthy one-movement work for solo piano, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written, but its difficulty is not some challenge thrown out to the pianist who would essay it, a kind of fearful puzzle to be solved—every scrap of the piano writing has its place in the overall musical scheme of things. Those contemporary factors upon which Villa-Lobos drew as his material took shape were but one aspect of world art music in the early 1920s—it was, in this case, the paradoxical expression of unbridled phantasmagoria allied to a highly developed sense of organic creativity—but it was a new language, wholly necessary in Villa-Lobos’s case, given his powerful creative personality and the heady mixture of an intense native (South American) music fused with a foreign (Iberian-European) style.

There is another, pianistic aspect of the piece. Villa-Lobos said it represents a musical portrait of its dedicatee, Arthur Rubinstein, whom the composer met in Rio in 1918, and who played an important role in persuading Villa-Lobos to study in Paris some years later. Those who knew Rubinstein well in his later years may find it difficult to see how this civilised and urbane musician is reflected in this barnstorming score; but this is merely to hear and see things on the surface. Even into his late eighties, Rubinstein possessed immense energy; his natural grace and style may have endeared him to fashionable society, but here was a pianist who technically had no peer, who knew what he could do well and what he could not, and concentreated upon the former, bringing to his interpretation of music with which he enjoyed a particular empathy the highest degree of sophistication and understanding. Yet his performances remained the product of an artist of unflagging powers. Rubinstein made his last public appearance, in London in May 1976, at the age of 89—and the very last piece of music he played in public was by Villa-Lobos. We who were there should not have been surprised.

Rudepoema falls into a number of sections, but is a continuous single-movement work. The overall structure of the piece, despite the density of the harmonic and rhythmic language, is quite straightforward, and combines elements of continuous melodic variation with vestigial traces of sonata, the whole harmonically adhering to its own rules which are necessarily the opposite of those of traditional functional harmony. Equally, the fluid yet sectionalised construction of the piece deliberately seems to thwart our expectations, and yet does so with such compelling interest as to reveal itself as an important virtuoso masterpiece, exceptional for its time and place, held together by following a moderate rate of harmonic change.

The straightforward nature of the construction of Rudepoema is as follows. The work opens with a simple four-note idea, almost as a slow tango, which soon expands très sauvage in dynamic and texture to a big animé climax that, as it dies down, reveals a six-note idea, dimly perceived in the treble. A secondary idea (not, in sonata terminology, the second subject) ‘reflects’ this before a third idea, based upon repeated notes, builds again to a climax, with the six-note theme much clearer. The mood changes, un peu calme, and a genuine second subject appears—but this is both derived from the six-note theme and is more flexibly slower, also characterised by repeated notes. This concludes what might be considered a relatively straightforward sonata exposition. Tonally, we have thus far had a first group centred upon F sharp, C sharp, D sharp and A sharp, latterly becoming B flat-E flat for the second subject.

The vast central section of the work—what is, in effect, a double development in two tempos—gets under way, recalling the lighter scherzando aspects of the opening, but (also as before) becoming denser and exhibiting an extraordinary feeling of inner growth, founded upon deep pedal points which emanate from the exposition’s tonal regions, and with a coruscating amalgam of ostinato, animation, fisty tonal clusters and rhythmic élan that grows with cumulative power, relaxing but momentarily, and accompanied by repeated chords to the sudden emergence of a three-note idea (whose provenance is clear): E, G, D—fff but unaccompanied. This heralds the end of the first part of the development; now the second, much slower (Modéré presque lent) part unfolds, the material refracted in newer tonal regions—A, G, E and D, musing in a Rousseau-cum-Gauginesque atmospheric scene that initially falls to a low D before powerful cadenza-like clusters induce a hypnotic ostinato that in turn leads to the final section of the work. This is no recapitulation as such, but reveals the six-note theme as an expansion of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ subjects alongside virtuosic chordal decoration before the passion of Rudepoema abates, falling to a tonal grouping of pianissimo low E major, A minor (with the supertonic) and C major chords. Is the harmonic basis in fact B—the dominant of E, the supertonic of A, the leading note of C and the tonic of the very opening F sharp? If so, the ‘Savage Poem’ has virtually hidden it from our perception—which can only be that of a different culture, observing the roots from which this remarkable masterpiece has sprung.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000

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