Villa-Lobos: Complete Symphonies. © 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc

CD Spotlight

A Superb Set

The complete symphonies of Heitor Villa-Lobos, recommended by GERALD FENECH

'Octogenarian Brazilian conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky's performances are fine and show no lack of passion or vigour.'


Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro on 5 March 1887. Maybe Brazil's greatest twentieth century composer, he was renowned also as a conductor, cellist, guitarist and teacher. Described as the single most significant creative figure in the last century to come out of Brazil, Villa-Lobos has become the most best-known musical figure in the history of South America's music. In his childhood, the country underwent a period of great social and political upheaval, and the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the overthrow of the Brazilian Empire a year later left a great mark on the output of the composer. Indeed, before these momentous events Brazilian music was very much oriented towards a European style of counterpoint and harmony. After 1890 composers started to make more emphasis on the folkloristic aspect of their country's musical heritage, and Villa-Lobos was no exception. Around 1905 the composer started explorations of Brazil's 'dark interior' absorbing the native musical culture. This lasted for about ten years, after which he played with many local street bands and was also influenced by cinema.

His music started to be published in 1913, and two years later he introduced some of his pieces in a series of concerts that lasted till 1921. It was during this period that he resolved his conflicts on what musical style he should continue composing - Brazilian or European? Wisely he chose the former, and by the time of his demise on 17 November 1959, Villa-Lobos had amassed a huge number of works covering all genres. Indeed, his catalogue totals over 2,000 pieces, and although much of this repertoire is influenced by Brazilian folk music, his love for the stylistic elements of the European classical tradition never left him, and periodically he produced works in this language. The Bachianas Brasileiras and Choros are prime examples in this regard. His fame as an orchestral composer rests mainly on his symphonic compositions, among which one finds twelve completed symphonies. Due to space constraints, I can only give an inkling of what these symphonies are all about, so bear with me and on with the motley.


Symphony No 1, O Imprevisto (The Unforeseen) (1916)

This work in four movements is very much in the mould of the European tradition, absorbing French models prevalent in Brazil in the beginning of the twentieth century. The vibrant swagger of this work is characteristic of the composer's 'Brazilianness', and there is much to enjoy in this first foray of Villa-Lobos' symphonic oeuvre.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro con brio (Symphony No 1)
(CD1 track 4, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :


Symphony No 2, Ascensão (Ascension) (1917-44)

Although written circa 1917, this symphony, also in four movements, was premiered in 1944. Its cyclical style includes a myriad of influences, including no less than music by four great European composers: Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Puccini. In the 'Andante moderato' (third movement) Villa-Lobos gives us a glimpse of the inventive melodic content that would later become the main feature of the Bachianas Brasileiras.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Andante moderato (Symphony No 2)
(CD1 track 7, 1:01-1:48) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :

In spite of having similar orchestration to the First, this symphony is richer in its harmonic language and much more dramatic in its emotional expressiveness.


Symphony No 3, War (1919) - Symphony No 4, Victory (1919)

These two symphonies can be regarded as twin brothers. Indeed they deal with the same subject, were composed in the same year and are of the same length, exactly thirty-one minutes each. Both were commissioned by the Brazilian government following the end of the country's involvement in World War I. In trying to convey his feelings about the conflagration with no sense of triumphalism, Villa-Lobos uses a very large orchestra in which he displays a confident use of unusual and evocative effects, such as the collage of fragments of the Brazilian national anthem and La Marseillaise in 'The Battle' movement (the fourth) of the Third Symphony.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro impetuoso (Symphony No 4)
(CD2 track 4, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :

Passion and colour abound, mixed with some genuinely moving passages that are particularly impressive. Also, in both works, there is a whiff of the Russian nationalists: the tone painting of Rimsky-Korsakov and the modal harmonies of Mussorgsky. The Scherzo of the Third also has a veiled reference to Vaughan Williams. Fine music all the way, wonderfully orchestrated, structurally sound, harmonically and thematically outstanding.


Symphony No 5, A Paz (Peace) (1920)

According to official accounts, the composer's fifth symphony is the third of a trilogy of programmatic works written to commemorate World War I. It is also the last of a cycle of five symphonies in the style of Vincent d'Indy. Tragically, the score was lost, and sadly it was never performed. To this day, we still do not know what Villa-Lobos wrote.


Symphony No 6, On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil (1944) - Symphony No 7 (1945)

Like symphonies Nos 3 and 4, these two can also be taken in tandem. They belong to a period when Villa-Lobos started to compose in a more mature way, when neoclassicism and atonal and polytonal harmonies started to appear in the composer's writing. Both symphonies, in their diversity, celebrate the majesty and power of nature. The Sixth is perhaps more accessible at first hearing. It is thematically built on a metric representation of the outline of a Brazilian mountain range, and, although there is a sense of the austere, Villa-Lobos's music is strongly pantheistic, revelling in the lush Amazon vegetation, sounds and landscape. It is certainly more serene than its successor.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro non troppo (Symphony No 6)
(CD3 track 1, 0:02-0:53) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :

The Seventh is a work that is close to the composer's heart. This symphony follows the same formal outlay as most of the others in this canon, but while few of his symphonies could be classified as restrained, this particular piece is certainly his most forceful statement, apart from the gigantic Tenth, which can be considered Villa-Lobos's 'Choral'. The symphony is scored for a huge orchestra, textures are dense and opulent, and the argument is at times hard to decipher. But in spite of this enormous tapestry of sound, the Amazonian wonder is depicted in all its marvels, with music that is as harsh as it is engrossing.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro vivace (Symphony No 7)
(CD3 track 5, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :


Symphony No 8 (1950)

This symphony was written in 1950 and premiered in 1955 at Carnegie Hall. Villa-Lobos had been working in the States since his first visit in 1944, and by the early 1950s he had become a household name, admired and respected as the greatest composer from South America. The New York Times critic Olin Downes, to whom the work is dedicated, described it as 'something we could call an inventive current, where structure, as opposed to drama, is emphasized'. In four movements, the work is only twenty-four minutes long, but despite the conciseness, there is much to challenge the mind, and its neo-classical model gives one the impression that the composer was starting to seriously consider the atonal aspect of music.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegretto scherzando (Symphony No 8)
(CD4 track 3, 3:20-4:19) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :


Symphony No 9 (1952)

This work, which like the Eighth, is in four movements, was dedicated to his partner Mindinha, and it was in fulfilment of a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was premiered in 1952, the same year of its composition, by this same Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The new classicism of Symphonies 8 and 9 often seems like a reproduction of the same elements in Stravinsky's Persephone and Jeu de Cartes. But this comparison would have been derided by both composers. Indeed, Stravinsky used to say that all music he did not like seemed to be by Villa-Lobos, whilst the latter tried to belittle Stravinsky's influence on his style. Notwithstanding, the Ninth makes for some highly interesting listening with its use of disguise and agitated propulsion. At twenty-two minutes it is the shortest of the lot, but the thick layer of orchestral activity that flows in a seemingly uncontrolled manner, and the economy in terms of ideas, give one the notion that Villa-Lobos chose the models of the pre-Beethoven era as his formal inspiration.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro giusto (Symphony No 9)
(CD4 track 8, 4:00-4:54) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :


Symphony No 10: Ameríndia (Sumé, Father of Fathers) (1954)

The Tenth Symphony was written in response to a commission for a major event in Brazil, the celebration in 1954 of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of São Paulo. In five movements, this work is the longest in the symphonic output of the composer, and yet the description 'Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra' makes amply clear that it is not a choral symphony, like Beethoven's Ninth. Indeed, it is more akin to Mahler's Eighth or Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. The text is around the story of Father José de Anchieta, a Jesuit priest who worked indefatigably to protect the indigenous peoples from the slavery and oppression of the Portuguese colonists. Father Anchieta suffered from a spinal condition but, all the same, he climbed the coastal mountain range to the plateau, where, on 25 January 1554, he celebrated Mass for the foundation of the town that would eventually become the metropolis of today. Effectively a hybrid symphony and oratorio, it is memorable for its stylistic variety and breath, drawing on several different sources of Brazilian music. An hour-long piece, rich in atmospheric passages, and one that reflects a clash of cultures with a breath of scope that is, at times, larger than life itself.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Poco allegro (Symphony No 10)
(CD5 track 5, 4:19-5:13) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :


Symphony No 11 (1955)

This symphony was written after a commission to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was heartily accepted by the composer. It was dedicated to conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who was a great champion of the music of his time, and his wife Natalie. The premiere by Charles Munch was greeted with mixed reviews. Musica America said that it was a score of 'immediate charm', with 'formal solidity and daring individuality'. The New York Times, on the other hand, was less positive and dubbed the work superficial. Critics apart, the symphony remains a perfect introduction to the later works of Villa-Lobos. The first movement is presented in a structure similar to that of the Eighth Symphony, where a short, more relaxed section is flanked by others earmarked by greater agitation and thematic variety. The second is unlike most of the composer's slow movements, and is characterized by an almost archaic seriousness and polytonal harmonisation.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Largo (Symphony No 11)
(CD4 track 10, 3:42-4:33) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :

Much of the Scherzo's colour emanates from melodies built on fourths, while the final Allegro often draws on exciting fanfares that create a bridge between contrasting ideas. Yet again, fourths cover a broad tessitura, giving a sense of space and amplitude.


Symphony No 12 (1957)

Villa-Lobos completed his final symphony on his seventieth birthday in 1957, dedicating it to his partner Mindinha. When it premiered a year later, contemporary music was in turmoil. It was the time of Stockhausen, Kagel, Messiaen and Boulez, who with their avant-garde sounds, including that of electronics, were turning the musical world upside down. Countering this turbulence were composers such as Martinu, Milhaud, Hartmann, Copland and many others, whose attempt was to recover the great symphonic tradition of the past. Villa-Lobos was an important addition to the latter group, and this is highly evident in his last symphony. Indeed, the Twelfth brings together the symphonic craftsmanship of the great masters with explosive energy, harmonic richness and rhythmic vitality; a truly fitting climax and summation of his symphonic canon.

Listen — Villa-Lobos: Allegro non troppo (Symphony No 12)
(CD6 track 2, 5:35-6:13) ℗ 2012-2017 and 2020 Naxos Rights US Inc :

This last volume (the sixth) also includes Uirapuru (1917), a symphonic poem regarded as one of the composer's most original pieces, written with a modernism that bubbles with colour and a distinctive Brazilian sound-world that does not draw on folkloric elements, and Mandu-Çarará (1940), a secular cantata dedicated to the god of dance. Notably lush, inventive and exciting, this piece is still waiting to make its mark, so this recording is more than welcome.


This is a superb set of a symphonic repertoire that is still struggling to make itself known. Octogenarian Brazilian conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky's performances are fine and show no lack of passion or vigour. Annotations are a treasure trove of information, and sound quality, although not top-notch, is, on the whole, satisfactory. I do urge you to take a trip down this musical Amazon. You will not be disappointed.

Copyright © 21 January 2021 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta








 << Home              Next review >>