Villa-Lobos Complete String Quartets Marco Polo 8.206006

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Complete String Quartets
Danubius Quartet
rec. 1990-92, Hungaroton Studio, Rottenbiller Street Studio, Budapest, Hungary
MARCO POLO 8.206006 [6 CDs: 320]

I do not know what the musical scene was in Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century, and from where Villa-Lobos drew his ideas at the beginning of his career, before any of the thinking developing in Europe could exert any influence on his compositions. The first quartet would suggest a love of romanticism. (There are traces of the likes of Dvořàk, and a strong similarity to the lyricism of Puccini’s string quartet movement Crisantemi from 1890.) It is a superbly lyrical work, quite different from most of his other quartets, and unique in its form: a set of six pieces which embody feelings of happiness and nostalgia and folk-like dance rhythms. This work demands many repeat hearings.

It is not often that one has the chance to review a set of works composed, as these were, by someone between the ages of 28 to 70, thus showing a composer’s progression of thought over many years. This set is also an opportunity to hear music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, whom too many may know only from Bachianas Brasileiras No 5, a fact all the more shocking since he wrote around 2000 works! In 1958, he was quoted as saying “I love to write quartets. One could say that it is a mania.” That seems to make sense. He composed six in the 1950s, five in the 1940s, and much earlier four in the 1910s. When he was not composing quartets, as in 1917-1931, he was busy producing major orchestral works. He spent time in Paris, where he met – and was influenced by – many of Europe’s new musical thinkers: Ravel, Dukas, Falla, Schmitt, Honegger, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Casella and Varèse.

The second quartet could hardly be more different unless it was experimentally atonal. Though it is also rich in lyricism, it is a long way from the first, surprising because they were composed the same year 1915. David Nelson’s excellent notes, for which I am thankful, point out that it was considered to be not so much a development from the first but a complete break with the ideas that gave birth to it. Let me be clear. This quartet is not a difficult listen, and there is much beauty to be relished –but Villa-Lobos has leaped from the sound world of Dvořàk and Puccini to that of Ravel, Debussy and César Franck.

The year 1916 saw Villa-Lobos completing his third quartet, said to be most influenced by French quartet writing, especially by Debussy’s impressionist palette (so successful in ‘painting’ scenes in which one can almost smell incense). The second movement gave the quartet’s nickname ‘the popcorn quartet’ due to the predominance of pizzicato giving the impression of popping corn. Bartók’s well-known Quartet No 4 with a seven-minute Allegro pizzicato fourth movement came 11 years later!

It was a surprise to read that Villa-Lobos’s fourth quartet of 1917 was not premiered until 30 years later, not clear why because the music is uncomplicated and full of beautiful tunes. The second movement has the cello opening an emotional melody, and later an allusion to the aforementioned Bachianas Brasileiras. The Scherzotests the musicians with difficult passages, while the Allegro finale reverts to simplicity and with a spring in its step moves the quartet to a satisfying conclusion

It was to be fourteen years before Villa-Lobos went back to quartet writing. Following his time in Europe, he returned with ideas which he was able to ‘brazilify’. He employed several nursery and children’s songs. The result is one of his most readily relatable quartets with instant appeal. The second movement, in particular, is wonderfully inventive. It begins with part of a nursery song before the cello introduces a more soulful air, and the viola creates a mystical atmosphere. The third movement sandwiches two more children’s songs within an outer framework of deeply melodious fabric, and one of the tunes has the last say. The final movement is also full of joyfully playful tunes given a merry treatment. It enables the music to fairly bounce along to a thoroughly enjoyable conclusion. Not for nothing is this quartet known as Quarteto Popular No 1.

Quartet No 6 is also known as Quarteto Brasileiro. You know what to expect from the outset, and it is delivered in brilliant fashion. The piece also shows a marked development in Villa-Lobos’s writing. The content of each movement grows out of an initial idea: just as a seed germinates, so the music develops and expands into maturity. The second movement blazes brightly; the opening cello theme is accompanied by pizzicato from the others, and the first theme re-emerges via the first violin’s highest voice to close. The third movement ploughs a more reflective furrow, in a marked contrast with the foregoing. The finale lives up to its marking Allegro vivace, save for two occasions when other ideas are brought to bear. The main trippingly happy-go-lucky aura in which the work has begun reasserts itself to continue to the end, and the pace increases for the last few notes.

At 38 minutes, Quartet No 7 is far and away the longest and, in many ways, the most difficult of all the cycle. The principal theme that opens is brought back in later movements. It gives rise to other ideas, and each instrument is given equal treatment in terms of the work the music demands. The Andante second movement opens with a long cello part, interrupted by a more upbeat but brief intervention from the violins and the viola. The cello pulls the others back into its own contemplative mood which continues for the remainder of the movement. The bright opening of the Scherzo is subjected to various reworkings exploring its components, and makes the most of the simple central idea. The Allegro giusto final movement places rhythm above other considerations. Each instrument is put through its paces with demanding sections throughout its ten-minute length. While melody is of less importance than the rhythm, the substance is satisfyingly rich.

The eighth quartet is classic chamber music, intimate and concise though atonal by comparison with previous quartets. Those who find atonality difficult need not fear, for it does not stray too far into that zone. Much of the music has tonal undertones and plenty of references to keep the sounds outside the full-on atonal experience of the likes of Webern or Schoenberg at his most experimental. The driving theme of the first movement is exchanged in the second for a lyrical and attractively tuneful slow one. The Scherzo: Vivace lives up to its marking. A jolly tune moves along at pace before others take over as in a relay race. The final Quasi allegro has one those short phrases that could easily become an earworm, and is repeated throughout the movement in different guises.

Quartet No 9 is another excursion into atonal territory but as before it still retains enough tonality to not put off those who enjoy melodies they can hum. The second movement in particular, with its sad demeanour, has a lyrical quality that is firmly tonal. It is as if Villa-Lobos wanted to experiment but would not commit to full-on atonality because he loved tuneful music too much.

The tenth quartet of 1946 is another that sits on the fence dividing tonality and atonality. The material in the first movement is subjected to a great deal of experimentation in variation, volume and speed. The slow movement is the emotional heart of the quartet with tonality winning out despite sometimes straying into the other territory with an increase in speed. The Scherzo declares its atonal clothes from the start. The rhythmic drive that begins the movement is slowed down by another more melodic idea; the first vies to return and manages to do as the movement hurries to its conclusion. The final movement is decidedly tonal. A folksy tune as a starting point morphs into different elements and the quartet concludes in the satisfying chord of C major.

Quartet No 11 was written in 1947. Tonality is in charge here with the merest flights of atonal fancy flitting in and out on occasion. Tunes dominate in the first movement, while the second, a scherzo with a childlike melody (reminiscent of “boys and girls come out to play”) skips along joyfully. The cello maintains a reflective mood in the adagio against which a sadness from the first violin is picked up by the second violin and the viola. The finale, a complete change in mood, shakes off any sad notions and replaces them with a much more upbeat atmosphere, reprising themes from various previous points and finishing on a more dissonant note.

The twelfth quartet, despite its generally atonal guise, still incorporates many melodies that soften any astringent edges, especially the lovely slow movement. Its outer sections are thoughtful and a livelier folksy interlude brings a short break in the otherwise pensive mood. The scherzo returns to a jolly mood that pushes the music forward with some strong and richly melodious themes. The final Allegro ben ritmato (with plenty of rhythm) delivers in that department in its outer sections; within, the movement shares its lyrical heart with another rhythmic episode.

Following quickly in the footsteps of the twelfth quartet, No 13 from 1951 is tonal and abounds in melodies from the start, though in a rather restrained mood. The Scherzo: Vivace shakes that off and fairly hops along, skipping a seemingly favourite attitude of Villa-Lobos whose use of that allusion is to be found frequently in these quartets. The supremely beautiful opening of the Adagio is given to the first violin amply, though gently, supported by the others. A conversation ensues before that lovely opening returns to end the movement. It is no surprise that Villa-Lobos loved to use Brazilian folk tunes in his works. There are many to choose from, and this quartet concludes with a representation of a dance that, as the notes say, “lifts the spirits” in no small measure.

The relatively short quartet No 14 is known as “the quartet of fourths”: that interval is the overarching one. The urgent nature of the first movement is contrasted with the slow movement which exudes expressivity and shows once again the love of tunes which Villa-Lobos is at pains to show throughout his oeuvre. The first theme is passed between the instruments inventively. The tenor first rises from second violin to first, then falls by an octave to the viola and again to the cello. The scherzo is lyrically rich, with a lovely tune at its core though wearing a sadness on its sleeve. Fourths again dominate the finale, acting as a glue to bind the melodies together. The quartet ends with a pleasing resolution.

The 15th quartet, written in New York in 1954, carries the nickname “harmonics” quartet because of its slow movement which includes timbral effects at the start and near the end. These are highly effective, with bright sounds, though the music soon enters a darker phase with a sombre main theme. Its development sustains the central section and it is only with 90 seconds to go that we get some relief with closing harmonics, albeit in a less upbeat mood than at the quartet’s opening. The youthful spirit of the brief Scherzo caused Arnaldo Estrela, a Villa-Lobos expert, to liken it to one of Beethoven’s. Praise indeed! The finale is unusually serious for a concluding movement but its beauty makes one forgive it.

Quartets No 16 and 17 are reckoned to be the summit of Villa-Lobos’s string quartet creativity. It is sad to read that the composer considered the seventeenth highly yet he did not live long enough to hear it performed. The sixteenth’s opening movement, though laced with nostalgia and sadness, abounds with beautiful rhythms and melodies. Its ingenuity raises it to one of the composer’s greatest. Likewise, the slow movement is full of gorgeous tunes despite the more sombre attitude than his usual slow movements display. The short scherzo, a heady mix of fantasy and inventiveness, gives the instruments plenty to do on their own and collectively. The finale is again a feast of invention. It alludes to Brazilian folk melodies, and the movement exudes a restless determination to get to the end which it does in a blazing display of brilliance.

Villa-Lobos’s last quartet is as near to perfection as he achieved. It shows all the knowledge he had accumulated in his quartet-writing journey, and every aspect has been fine-tuned. From a lovely opening movement, full of melody, to the achingly beautiful slow movement, the music is the apotheosis of all that has gone before. A contrasting Scherzo puts the musicians through their paces; technical challenges express unbridled joy and show as perhaps no other quartet has shown just how much Villa-Lobos adored writing them. The finale seems to draw all these elements together. With a central theme of shimmering beauty, the quartet moves towards its conclusion, and rises to a truly scintillating and emphatic end.

This has been a monumental journey through what is considered to be among the most “distinctive bodies of chamber works in 20th century music” as the description on the back of the box says. When one listens to them in succession, there can be no dispute as to the accuracy of that statement. Some put the cycle into the same bracket as the quartets of Bartók and Shostakovich, which says a great deal. This highlights the fact that they are still too little known among the vast majority of the listening public. I believe there are only two complete sets of the currently available. The other cycle is by Cuarteto Latinoamericano on Brilliant Classics. The Danubius Quartet perform with an obvious reverence and love, and their collective voice is as powerful as it is brilliant. I will enjoy revisiting them all simply for pleasure, now that the review is finished.

Steve Arloff

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Recording details
Disc 1: 10-19 October, 1990 (Nos. 1, 8, 13), Hungaroton Studio
Disc 2: 15-16 October, 1990 (No. 17), 28-30 January, 1991 (No. 11), 11-15 February, 1991 (No. 16), Hungaroton Studio
Disc 3: 18-19 April, 1991 (No 4), 22-25 April, 1991 (No 14), 20-23 May, 1991 (No 6), Hungaroton Studio
Disc 4: 18-23 May, 1992 (Nos 5, 9, 12), Rottenbiller Street Studio
Disc 5: 1-2 July, 1991 (No 15), 15-19 June 1992 (Nos 3, 10), Rottenbiller Street Studio
Disc 6: 12-16 November, 1992 (Nos 2, 7), Rottenbiller Street Studio

Both studios are located in Budapest, Hungary

Judith Tóth (violin I), Adél Miklós (violin II), Cecilia Bodolai (viola), Ilona Ribli (cello)