Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An important Villa-Lobos box-set

From August 7, 2009:

"The writing is crazy, but it has a point. It's the added salsa and when you play the quartets you have to make them spicy." - first violinist Saúl Bitrán

From 1995 to 2001, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano recorded all 17 of the Villa-Lobos string quartets. These were released on the Dorian label on six individual CDs, with two or three pieces on each disc, often with early, middle, and late works mixed together for variety. The performances were hailed by most critics as the definitive performances, which is saying quite a bit. Villa's string quartets were already well-served on CD, with complete cycles by the Bessler-Reis quartet on (the late, lamented) Brazilian label Kuarup, and by the Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo. There were also recordings of individual works by the Brazilian String Quartet, the Stuyvesant String Quartet, and the Hollywood String Quartet, among others.

As good as some of those other performances are, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano own these works; they are the best advocates I know for this amazing music.

Now Dorian has put together a box-set of the six CDs, remastered and nicely packaged. The Dorian CDs always sounded great, and their remastering for this set polishes things up so you feel even more in the presence of the musicians. Dorian has added a seventh disc: a DVD of the group performing #01, and an interview with the musicians talking about Villa-Lobos and his music. There's a really excellent booklet with valuable notes by Juan Arturo Brennan.

The members of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano - the three Bitrán brothers (Saúl, Arón, & Alvaro) and Javier Montiel - have lived with these works for a long time, and are very thoughtful about the music not just in terms of technique and musicality, but as part of a broader idea of Latin American culture. Having recorded the entire cycle of 17 string quartets and performed the cycle five times (with another coming up in Mexico City later this month), these musicians rate this music very highly. In the DVD interview Saúl Bitrán puts these works in the same league as the cycles by Bartok and Shostakovich, and says that Villa-Lobos' string quartets are much more creative and much more original than those two great 20th century series.

The string quartets include some avante-garde features (especially #03 from 1916, which was the musical centrepiece of the 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo). According to Arón Bitrán, "Back in 1916, before Bartok or Shostakovich, he wrote a complete movement with left-hand pizzicatos and double harmonics; things no one else had ever thought of." If they flirt with the exoticism which most people connect with Villa-Lobos they do so only to a certain extent. You might not recognise the string quartets as being by the same composer as the Sixth or Tenth Choros. At the end of the cycle, the string quartets become more neo-classic and less emotional. The final works, written when Villa-Lobos was ill, are meditative and suffused with "saudade", the Brazilian version of nostalgic sadness. It's really sad that Villa didn't get a chance to finish his 18th String Quartet, which he was working on when he died. Only sketches remain (they're in the Museu Villa-Lobos).

Keep an eye on the Cuarteto Latinoamericano - their excellent website - - is a good way to do this. This is the group's 30th anniversary year; let's hope they're around for a long, long time to come.

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