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The symphonies of Heitor Villa-Lobos: revisited, revised, revived

July 23, 2014

Four years ago the seed of an enormous undertaking was planted, namely to produce a new, critical edition of the 11 extant symphonies and other orchestral works by the Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The ongoing project is a partnership between Naxos, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra [Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP)] and Criadores do Brasil, the orchestra’s publishing house.

The first two releases in the series enjoyed great critical reception: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (8.573151) was hailed as being a “simply outstanding recording of two magnificent and scandalously neglected symphonies.” (Musical Opinion), while Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (8.573043) found Gramophone opining that “…this does bode well for Naxos’s projected complete Villa-Lobos symphony cycle.”

Antonio Carlos Neves Pinto and Isaac Karabtchevsky, two of the key figures in the proposed 10-year project, report here on their involvement in this unique development.

“Heitor Villa-Lobos was the most important composer in the entire history of Brazilian symphonic music. His oeuvre continues to fascinate us as with its technical complexity, its unexpected sounds and its Brazilian poetics.

Antonio Carlos Neves Pinto

With his tremendous talent for composition, he wrote more than a thousand works and never revised any of them. He used to say that in the time that it would take him to revise a piece he could have composed many more.

Faced with this vast quantity of material that has not been duly revised, performers have always found his orchestral works impaired. The OSESP, in partnership with maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky, has therefore commenced a major project to carry out a musicological revision and editing of all the symphonies composed by Villa-Lobos, plus some of his forgotten orchestral works.

In partnership with the Naxos label, these works are being recorded and released commercially as part of a global initiative of unique importance, namely to promote the great symphonic works of Heitor Villa-Lobos. This will allow a world-wide music community to become better acquainted with his oeuvre and to perform it on a more solid footing.”

– Antonio Carlos Neves Pinto, coordinator of the Music Documentation Centre and of Criadores do Brasil publishers

“On 30 May, 2010 I had the pleasure of being visited at home by OSESP’s artistic director, Arthur Nestrovski. This get-together was planned above all to allow two friends to catch up and share ideas about the Brazilian music scene. But as often happens on these occasions some of the issues that had occupied our minds and given us cause for concern for some time also came to light.

Isaac Karabtchevsky

During this conversation Arthur told me about a project that aimed to restore the symphonies of Villa-Lobos. This important collection of works was marred by a lack of musicological rigour, and by the indifference of publishers when it came to correcting the original text, as well as the lack of judgement of a few performers who had recorded his works without the necessary grounding or a solid editorial vision. I was immediately struck by the force of these arguments since, within the vast oeuvre of Villa-Lobos, his symphonies had suffered the most.

I have never understood the reasons for this indifference. Could it be a consequence of the composer’s counter-intuitive decision to give the title of ‘symphony’ to a composition that was obviously rhapsodic, much closer to his Choros or Fantasias than to the rigour of the sonata form? Or was it due to the apathy of the performers when faced with the need to recover the content of a language hidden in scribbles and manuscripts that are difficult to read?

Whatever the case, I threw myself enthusiastically into the project, which would involve a group of committed music experts whose aim was to compare the manuscripts with the orchestral pieces that had already been recorded. The objective was to consider the references and annotations made by Villa-Lobos, as well as the recordings already made by different orchestras, in an effort to reveal the composer’s original intentions by examining all the available material. As if this were not enough, in addition to the enormous task of recording the symphonies and performing them in concerts, the project also intended to embrace other works that had rarely, and sometimes never, been performed—works that were lying in wait to be recovered.

A plan of action, both ambitious and optimistic, was thus drawn up: first, to address all the symphonies in the period 2011-2016; second, to focus on 13 other orchestral works and bring the project to a conclusion by the year 2020. This latter selection was to include Uirapuru, The Odyssey of a Race, Suite for Chamber Orchestra No. 1, Danças Africanas, Danças Diabólicas, Danças Dos Mosquitos, Danças Frenéticas, The Discovery of Brazil, Rudepoema, Francette et Pià, Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, and the Fantasia Concertante for 32 Cellos.

The loss of the manuscript of Symphony No. 5, Peace leaves an irreparable gap within this formidable project. Sources describe it as a work in the style of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”, for two orchestras, bands, soloists and choirs. Judging by the open-air concerts directed by Villa-Lobos, it would appear to have been a work that built on all the instrumental resources that he had employed up to that point.

When his symphonies are performed a particular methodical and disciplined approach must be adopted. Rediscovering omitted notes and harmonies also involves re-thinking other performance criteria. It is not simply a case of literally translating the sections left blank by the composer and filling them in, as if they were not part of a dialectic process, similar to that involved in constructing the form of the symphony. Villa-Lobos’s world is actually that of Brazilian popular music: his own instruments were the guitar and the cello and, taking his lead from Béla Bartók, his first step was to try to transpose these elements to so-called classical music.

For these reasons, knowledge of the Brazilian choro tradition and making the characteristically Rio de Janeiro rubato fit the long melodies in unison or octaves are fundamental. It is impossible not to permeate the rhythmic structures with accents—not necessarily written on the score—which give the performance a Brazilian feel, similar to that sought when performing a piece inspired by jazz.

To date five of the eleven symphonies encompassed by the project have been recorded. I cannot put into words the sheer sense of accomplishment experienced during these recordings—the excellence of the OSESP’s musicians, their active participation in this process of rediscovery, the perfect acoustics of the Sala São Paulo concert hall, and the stimulating presence of Uli Schneider, all brought together in this undertaking that will establish benchmarks within the prodigious oeuvre of Villa-Lobos.

Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor

The third volume in the series, featuring Symphony No. 10 ‘Amerindia’, is scheduled for global release in November 2014.

Now available:

VILLA-LOBOS Symphonies Nos 6 and 7

VILLA-LOBOS Symphonies Nos 3, ‘War’ and 4, ‘Victory’

Heitor Villa-Lobos Biography & Discography

Isaac Karabtchevsky Biography & Discography


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