VILLA-LOBOS: Choros, Nos. 8 and 9 (Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kenneth Schermerhorn/ Teije van Geest) (Naxos: 8.555241)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887. His father, an employee of the National Library, was also an amateur musician, enthusiastic enough to teach his son the cello, using to begin with a viola, more suited to the child's size. Villa Lobos was later to acquire a knowledge of the guitar and, in adolescence, close acquaintance with the popular music of Rio, where the Chôro had become a popular urban form for street serenaders. After his father's death he soon deserted the medical studies proposed for him by his mother in favour of music, an aim he pursued by travelling throughout Brazil, learning at first various folk traditions of the country and writing music of his own that accorded fully with what he heard. After some years of this irregular existence, Villa-Lobos attempted a more formal study of music in Rio, but soon gave this up, preferring freedom and the personal development of his impatient genius, which won more general acceptance with a serious of concerts devoted to his works. Largely through the advocacy of Artur Rubinstein, who had been impressed by the earlier piano music, Villa-Lobos won the support of rich sponsors, which enabled him to move in 1925 to Paris, where he based his activities for the following years. His return to Brazil in 1930 proved permanent, although he had had every intention of returning to Paris, a place congenial to his talent, as soon as he could. It was during these Paris years, interrupted by occasional voyages home that he wrote his fourteen Chôros, a series of works for various combinations of voices and instruments, derived in inspiration from the popular music of the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The change of government in Brazil in 1930 brought a change in the future of Villa-Lobos, who found himself increasingly responsible for the organization of national musical education, a task that he continued with inspired enthusiasm. His reputation abroad grew rapidly, while at home he occupied an unassailable position as the musical leader of his generation. As a composer Villa-Lobos was thoroughly imbued with the very varied traditions of his country, Amerindian, African and Portuguese. These he was able to translate into terms acceptable in the concert hall and the theatre. His music before 1930 has strong traces of French influence, or rather of the influences current in Paris in the 1920s, while his later work in Brazil was to include that fascinating synthesis of Brazil and Bach, Bachianas brasileiras and a series of compositions in which a demand for instrumental virtuosity made itself known.
Chôros No.8 was written in 1925, completed in Rio de Janeiro, but conceived in Paris. This Dance Chôros is scored for a large orchestra, including a percussion section of Brazilian instruments, the caracaxa, reco-reco, cuisa and matraca, rattles, scrapers and drums of characteristic timbre. The work also uses two pianos, the first as a solo instrument and the other as an addition to the percussion. The insistent rhythm of the caracaxa, which opens the Chôros is joined by the double bassoon and saxophone, with other wind instruments adding to the picture of carnival in Rio. There are moments of lyrical tranquillity, as the music progresses, returning through a strange rhythmic figure to a mood of increasing excitement. A dramatic slow march intervenes, the solo piano assuming greater importance and leading to a section in the mood of a batuque, a dance of African origin. Chôros No.8 offers music of barbaric intensity, exotic in scoring and rhythms, drawing on the composer's own familiarity with the music of his own country and with the kind of orchestral and harmonic techniques favoured in Paris, where Stravinsky's Russian exoticism had originally shocked the public, to be followed by the more urbane compositions of Les Six.
Chôros No.9, composed in 1929, belongs, like its immediate numerical if not chronological predecessor, No.8, to the composer's Paris period, a time that brought not only voyages home, but travel to various parts of Europe and to Africa, the original source of a strong element in the music of Brazil. Villa-Lobos declared that there were, in Chôros No.9, no fiction, no memories and no transfigured thematic factors, just rhythm and mechanical sounds, a description that may account modestly for the origin of the work but does less than justice to its content. After an energetic opening, Chôros No.9 moves into a more relaxed mood, leading in turn to a bassoon solo that may seem strangely familiar in outline, the theme taken up by the full orchestra. A syncopated, off-beat march rhythm is interrupted by an episode that seems to threaten something other than the waltz that follows, a flute solo introducing a section in which Brazilian percussion instruments provide an ostinato accompaniment. There succeeds a series of further episodes encompassing wide varieties of texture and mood, from parody through moments of lyricism to insistent and highly characteristic dance-rhythms and a triumphal conclusion, the diverse material unified throughout in idiom.