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, January 4, 2019

Music from the shadows

Alberto Nepomuceno: Symphony in G minor, Prelude to O Garatuja, Serie Brasileira

The Villa-Lobos Shadow in Brazilian classical music is wide, and long, and very dark. It reaches forward from the intimidating bulk of the great composer's works, but it also reaches into the past, obscuring the music of fine, or at least respectable, composers who went before. But now, to shine some light on composers in this shadow, we have an exciting new Naxos series called The Music of Brazil, made possible by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs project Brasil em Concerto. We can look forward to more releases from the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP), from a label that has already done so much for Brazilian classical music.

Alberto Nepomuceno is a good composer to begin with: born twenty-three years before Villa-Lobos, he left behind his beginnings in the North-Eastern cities of Fortaleza and Recife for more sophisticated musical surroundings, first in Rio de Janeiro, and then for an extended stay in the European capitals of Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. A progressive in politics as well as art, Nepomuceno worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, on behalf of new trends in music, but it was Villa-Lobos who gained much of the credit as the foremost home-grown musical modernist. In a coup of self-promotion and clever branding, Villa-Lobos stood virtually alone as the representative of music at the Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo in 1922. At that point, unfortunately, Nepomuceno had been dead for nearly two years, though surely more room could be made in the story of avant garde Brazilian music for someone who had translated Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony into Portuguese in 1916, teaching it at his National Institute of Music.

Which brings us to the music on the present disc. There is lots of well-crafted, pleasant music here, substantial enough to make careful listening worth your while, with occasionally something special.  While I was re-listening to Nepomuceno's G minor Symphony I had a flash-back to some music I had heard earlier in the day on my car radio (on KING-FM), Johan Halvorsen's Symphony no. 1 in D minor. Both had a pleasing, light, Tchaikovskian sound, and I wasn't at all surprised to see that both composers were born in the same year, 1864, though the Brazilian symphony was written in 1893, thirty years before its Norwegian counterpart. It's the beautiful slow movement of this symphony which represents perhaps the peak of Nepomuceno's orchestral music, under the influence, I would guess, of music by composers such as Puccini and Leoncavallo, but prefiguring works by Elgar and Richard Strauss.

Fabio Mechetti and the Minas Gerais Philharmonic provide really excellent playing, with especially strong string sections. Their version of the G minor Symphony is vastly better than the other version I've heard, by the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira under Edoardo de Guarnieri from 1958. This is a strong start for the Naxos series, and I look forward to upcoming releases!

This disc will be released on February 8, 2019.

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