Villa-Lobos Symphonic Cycle Ends at Beginning

Naxos completes their cycle of Villa-Lobos symphonies by starting at the beginning. This final installment features Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Both are early works, and both are strongly influenced by Vincent d’Indy.

Villa-Lobos studied in France and used d’Indy’s book on composition as a guide. His first symphony, completed in 1916 bears a strong resemblance to d’Indy’s symphonic writing. And yet there’s something unique here.

Villa-Lobos was trying to express something cosmic with this work. As he wrote, “the soul of the artist, with the blaze of his own light that emanates from him – glimpses, through a subtle and ethereal crystal, a vast landscape.”

He mostly succeeds in expressing this vision. The music has a light, ethereal quality to it. The third movement actually reminded me a little of Holst’s “Mercury” movement from “The Planets” with its quick splashes of orchestral color.

Villa-Lobos composed his second symphony before hearing his first performed. Nevertheless, the style of the work seems more mature. There’s still a French element to the work, but Villa-Lobos’s own voice is stronger. The title “Ascensão” (Ascending) refers to the opening four-note upward-pointing motif. Villa-Lobos builds the entire work on that motif. The symphony is a tightly-woven whole, a work that logically progresses from start to finish.

Great music knows no borders. I think, though, that the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra brings something special to the music of their countryman. That shared heritage gives these symphonies an extra lift.

With this release, all of Villa-Lobos’ surviving symphonies are available in first-rate performances. Collect them all.

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Symphony No. 1 ‘O Imprevisto’; Symphony No. 2 ‘Ascensão’
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor

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