Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Cello Concerto No.1 (1915)
Cello Concerto No.2 (1953)
Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra (1945)
Antonio Meneses (cello)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. 2021/22, Sala São Paulo, Brazil
Naxos 8.574531 [68]

Heitor Villa-Lobos composed his Cello Concerto No.1 between 1913 and 1915, and conducted the first performance in 1919. This obviously early work (with a rather unusual opus number of 50) shows many, sometimes diverging, influences. It is, then, rather uncharacteristic of what the mature composer was to write. But it is an ambitious piece, with fine instrumental and orchestral touches. While one may spot French influence reminiscent of, say, Lalo or even Saint-Saëns, the most striking thing about the music is its melodic warmth and generosity, a typical Villa-Lobos characteristic. The Concerto may sound somewhat eclectic but it is quite appealing in a fairly traditional way. One need not look for exotic or folk-inflected music but appreciate the piece for what it is worth and for the way it compares with the composer’s later works.

The late Cello Concerto No.2, clearly the product of Villa-Lobos’s final years, is warm and generous, with more assured orchestral writing. The music sometimes nods towards earlier works. One may hear echoes or reminiscences of his best-known and much loved works, the Bachianas brasilieiras No.1 and No.5, particularly so in the beautiful second movement. As in most of his late concertos, he includes in the Second Cello Concerto a cadenza that acts as a bridge between the third movement’s virtuosity and the finale’s strong nationalistic flavour. This marvellously accomplished piece is heard too rarely but it had been recorded. The Brazilian cellist Aldo Parisot commissioned it and gave the first performance in New York. He recorded it later for ABC Westminster Gold with Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Gustav Meier, but that is now a collector’s item. There is a 1995 recording, still in print (Dorian DOR-90228): cellist Andrés Díaz appears with the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemecke. That fine disc is also worth locating for the couplings, the Fourth Symphony and Amazonas.

Thirty years after the First Cello Concerto, Villa-Lobos wrote the Fantasia, another substantial work for cello and orchestra. The character of the music belies the title: it is quite serious, almost austere, devoid of any nationalistic or folk-like elements – except the allusion to the sertanejo melody in the third movement. I had not heard the work. Now, after several hearings, I think it may be one of the composer’s finest, most sincere, inspired and often gripping statements.

Cellist Antonio Meneses has the full measure of the music. He plays with assurance and impeccable musicality and technique. Conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky’s credentials as an expert and convincing Villa-Lobos conductor include the recording of the complete symphonies for Naxos. Here, he leads vital readings of the substantial, often brilliant and demanding pieces. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra play beautifully, and the recording are superb. Is it possible to ask for more? I think not. I recommend this release warmly to all those who love Villa-Lobos’s music, especially when it is played and recorded as finely as here.

Hubert Culot

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