villa-lobos quartets dorian

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2003 and the recording is still available.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No. 1 (1915)
String Quartet No. 6 (1938)
String Quartet No. 17 (1957)
Latin American Quartet
rec. 1994, Troy, New York
Dorian DOR90205 [65]

The cycle of Villa-Lobos’s Quartets, of which this is the first in a six volume series, is one of the most vibrant and rhythmically agile of the twentieth century. He was a relentlessly inventive composer in the quartet medium spicing his harmonies, introducing folk melodies, dance rhythms, galvanizing his scherzi (in particular) with eruptive and detonatory pizzicato passages, embedding – early on – impressionistic devices into his scores and generally springing gorgeous but not treacly melody and lyricism throughout. He has the great gift of keeping auditory sensations constantly engaged by the richness of his melodic breadth and colour. The Latin American Quartet (Cuarteto Latinamericano) offer a mixed recital, early, middle and late quartets mixed up, and differ from their rivals, the Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo, who opt for a chronological survey. The three periods so often referred to in relation to his compositional life are here accommodated with effortless ease in the first volume of this promisingly edited, excellently recorded and convincingly played traversal.

The First Quartet of 1915 is suite-like and in six movements. It’s written in his early intensely expressive and compressed style with a jaunty second movement called Brincadeira (A Joke) full of pizzicati and humour. The central slow movement is harmonically pliant and yearning and after a curiously withdrawn Melancholia fifth movement there’s a banishing-all-care finale spiced with his saucy rhythmic drive. Over twenty years separates the First from the Sixth, by which time we are entering Villa-Lobos’s second creative phase but once again those essential elements that make his quartets so distinctive are present here. There is playfulness but a technical security that certainly bears out his stated admiration for Haydn. The balance he secures between single voices and unison phrasing is excellently convincing as is the easy way he embeds the native Sertão rhythms and plays with the irregularity of rhythm as well. There’s a particularly expressive moment for the viola in the slow movement and in the finale he hearkens back to the opening Poco animato, in a satisfying way but not one especially seeking cyclical procedures. There’s more angularity here and a degree of compositional density and shifting metres – playful, yes, but restless – that suddenly darkens in the viola line in reminiscence of the slow movement, accompanied by strong and heavy accents. This is a quartet that the Hollywood Quartet recorded and it deserves repeated listening.

The 17th – he began but didn’t live to complete No. 18 – comes from 1957. It has a newly classical feeling for all the sometimes abrasive material, opening as it does with triplets and flirting with some brittle, discursive material. The Lento has a refined rather chaste beauty before breaking into a fast section, and some more openly straightforward lyricism. He even threatens some fugato classicism but resists. After a sliver of a Scherzo we have a brisk, propulsive engaging finale with an attractive contrasting slower section. It was premiered by the Budapest Quartet one month before Villa-Lobos’ death.

A fine start overall then, to a much neglected body of work. Documentation and recording are both excellent. There are five more volumes to come and I’ll be reviewing them all with the greatest interest.

Jonathan Woolf

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