Monday, September 12, 2016

Villa-Lobos: A Performer's Perspective

I first encountered the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos as a guitar student around 1972. It was the Prelude No. 4 and I found it both atmospherically lovely and technically challenging. It has a simple ABA structure, with the outer sections a simple triadic melody accompanied by harmonic chords. Then there is a fast middle section with rushing arpeggios that guitar students always struggle to get even. The magic comes when the return of the A section is preceded by a statement of the triadic melody in harmonics. It ends with a tonic chord in first inversion. Nice piece. Here is a recording I made many years later:

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I later learned all five of the preludes and performed them as a group many times in concert, but this is the only one I have a recording of. After I began studying with Teo Bagchus in Vancouver, the first teacher I had who really knew the repertoire, I started to learn the Etude No. 8. I was still working on it when I traveled to Alicante, Spain to study with Teo's teacher, José Tomás. In fact, when I first knocked on his door and he asked me what I was working on, I'm pretty sure that it was mention of the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 8 that got me in the door. Later on I worked on the Etude No. 1, which is one of the trickiest arpeggio studies. Audiences like it because it sounds pretty, but guitarists can spend a few years mastering the complex arpeggio pattern. Here is my recording of it:

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There are twelve etudes for guitar in all by Villa-Lobos but a lot of guitarists never get past the first one, which is actually one of the easiest. A particularly challenging one is the Etude No. 7 with its quick scales and melody that goes far up the neck. Here is my recording of that one:

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So that gives you a pretty good sample of the solo guitar music by Villa-Lobos. I was bragging to a commentator that I have played almost all the music for guitar by Villa-Lobos in concert and that is almost true. I have played all of the preludes and most of the etudes (seven or eight of them, at least), the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra as well as the Sexteto místico, a chamber work for the fascinating ensemble of flute, oboe, alto saxophone, guitar, celesta and harp. The only piece ever written for that ensemble, I am sure. That performance was for a chamber music series in Vancouver, recorded for broadcast by the CBC, in which I also played El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer for solo guitar. Alas, I don't have a copy of that recording, so let's listen to this performance. The players are Bent Larsen (Flute), Sverre Larsen (Celesta), Björne Carl Nielsen (Oboe), Christian Hougaard (Saxophone), Jan Sommer (Guitar), Tine Rehling (Harp):


I haven't played the Suite popular brasileño, nor the Chôro No. 1, nor a couple of the etudes, but everything else...

Apart from the performance of the Concerto at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, I think the performance I am most proud of was in Montreal when I devoted the whole first half to Villa-Lobos. I played the Etude 1, Prelude 1, Etude 2, Prelude 2, Etude 5, Prelude 3, Etude 7, Prelude 4, Etude 8, Prelude 5 and ended with the Etude 10, a real tour-de-force of slurs! I really wish I had a tape of that concert.

6 comments:

Patrick said...

I love the Asian-like serenity of Prelude 4. Such a balm for our frenetic, exhausting times. Thank you for sharing.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are very welcome!

David said...

Bryan, thanks for this informative perspective on one of the largely unappreciated composers. I was surprised to learn that pretty much all of Villa-Lobos' guitar music can fit on one CD. He created 12 symphonies, 17 string quartets, the large works of the Choros and Bachianas Brasileiras so I thought there would be a larger catalogue of guitar music. (Wikipedia says his work includes 2000 compositions!) The guitar is so "latin" an instrument, my presumption was that there would be volumes devoted to it. Better though that there be quality over quantity. And from the evidence in your post, the quality is unquestionable.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, a couple of CDs! There is also a lot of pretty formidable piano music by Villa-Lobos. But the downside of being a performer is that you tend not to have any engagement with that repertoire that is not written for your instrument. I am sorry to say that I hardly know the rest of Villa-Lobos' music. So I will have to do a post or two on that!

I think that the relatively small amount of repertoire for guitar by Villa-Lobos might come from the fact that his "market", so to speak, was, in the first half of the century, largely limited to Andres Segovia! Not too many others were going around playing VL in concert.

David said...

Bryan, sorry I didn't mean to short change the guitar repertoire. I thought the Amazon recordings claiming to be "complete" were single discs. I may have been hasty there. I suppose a composer could do worse than have Segovia as a patron. I have the Naxos set of all his piano solo music (8 CDs!). It is enjoyable and "idiomatic" as the reviewers like to say. You will know better than I but his Bachianas Brasileiras and Choros seem to demonstrate his abilities to compose for a very wide range of instruments.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, not at all! I know of Timo Korhonen's complete Villa-Lobos and it is on two CDs of which I have the first.

Thanks, David, because now I have topics for at least two posts! And I have to finish my Wagner posts, but doing anything with Wagner always involves listening to many hours of music and reading some thick books!