Sambach penguin EPRC0055

Linus Roth (violin)
Orquestra Johann Sebastian Rio
rec. 2023, Sala Cecilia Meireles, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Evil Penguin EPRC0055 [65]

The portmanteau title of this release reveals its rather surprising intentions: pairing Bach with Brazilian samba. If you think that seems an unlikely mix, you wouldn’t be alone. I was curious about how this could work, and knowing of Linus Roth’s reputation as a fine violinist, took the plunge.

Bach is represented only by his E major violin concerto, and you will be relieved to know that it has not been tinkered with – there is no attempt to give it a samba rhythm. That’s the good news. The bad news is that within a few bars of the opening Allegro, I became uneasy. There was a lack of life and lightness in the playing of both orchestra and soloist and a chugging slow tempo that seemed to hark back to earlier pre-period practice times. I listened to the classic old school recording by Arthur Grumiaux on Philips, where the tempo is even slower (though only by ten seconds in the first movement), but more than compensated for by grace and poetry. And most importantly, there is still lightness and life. Listening to my three modern versions – Ibragimova (Hyperion), Manze (Harmonia Mundi) and Terakado (BIS) – the contrast with Roth and the Orquestra Johann Sebastian Rio was really striking. The latter (Terakado) is perhaps the most instructive: it has basically the same timing for the Allegro as the Roth but has so much more verve. The Adagio is more of the same: at least thirty seconds slower than any of my comparison versions, forty-five slower than Grumiaux. And you won’t be surprised that the pattern is repeated in the closing Allegro assai. A non-starter as a contender in the crowded field of the Bach concertos. Frankly, at this point, I was pleased that there was no more Bach in SamBach.

The rather slight booklet notes try to convince the reader that a samba-inflected arrangement for violin and chamber orchestra of Villa-Lobos’s famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is the glue that holds the two disparate programme components together. It doesn’t. The exotic mix of the cellos and soprano in Villa-Lobos’ creation is lost in the arrangement, and one is left with a pleasant but somewhat characterless and overly sweet confection.

I have no background in Brazilian popular music, but of course knew Girl from Ipanema and as I discovered, Mas que nada (made famous by Sérgio Mendes and Brazil 66) as well. Each of the songs has been arranged for solo violin and chamber orchestra, with some “Brazilian” instruments added for colour. Some of the arrangements seem very forced; the presence of a harpsichord makes little sense. Zequinha de Abreu’s Tico-tico no Fubá begins as though it is a lost Brandenburg concerto and then out of nowhere, the samba rhythm appears. The sultry sensuality of Girl from Ipanema is lost, and replaced by lush strings. Certainly I would prefer to listen to Astrud Gilberto sing Girl than this version. Some of the Brazilian pieces are performed in concert, with the audience singing the chorus in Mas que nada,.

I take no pleasure at all in writing such a negative review, but even if the album had been a series of brilliant performances, I would have still failed to see who was the intended audience. Samba lovers may see the orchestral arrangements as lacking authenticity and find little to fire their enthusiasm in the Bach. Unless I am an outlier in my response to the Bach, it will not find many admirers among classical aficionados, who may see the Brazilian arrangements as fairly bland crossover pieces.

David Barker

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Johann Sebastian Bach – Concerto in E Major BWV 1042
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Villa Cantilena & Melodia Sentimental
Antônio Carlos Jobim – Desafinado / Garota de Ipanema
Antônio Carlos Jobim – Samba de uma Nota Só
Marcos Valle – Samba de Verão
Noel Rosa – Gago Apaixonado
Ary Barroso – Aquarela do Brasil
Assis Valente – Brasil Pandeiro
Waldir Azevedo / Jacob do Bandolim – Brasileirinho / Assanhado
Zequinha de Abreu – Tico-tico no Fubá
Jorge Benjor – Mas que nada
Pixinguinha e Benedito Lacerda – Um a zero

All works except the Bach are arrangements by Ivan Zandonade.