Waxing lyrical about Brazilians

Apparently there is another Football World Cup about to take place. Being a follower of the oval rather than round ball, I shall be getting in a few rental films over the next weeks to avoid the inevitable wall-to-wall coverage, and not see much of the action until England meet Germany in the quarter-finals for the penalty shoot-out. And like the film Titanic, we all know how that will end.                                                                                                              Presumably there must be a few concert promoters around with more interest in the tournament than me. But I haven’t seen anyone putting on concerts or recitals on the back of this global event. Brazilian music would seem to be an obvious theme for a concert but so far, unless I’ve missed it – nothing.                                                                  

   That may be because we know very little of anything classical from Brazil beyond the occasional outing of works by the country’s most famous composer, the larger-than-life and over-fecund Heitor Villa-Lobos. Someone once told me that he wrote so much music so fluently that he had little idea of what he had written. People would come into his office or study or wherever and simply snaffle manuscripts off the desk and take them home for keeps. Can this be true? Amongst his vast and variable output, perhaps the most famous pieces are Bachianias Brasileiras. And of these the best-known is the Aria from suite No.5, especially in the 1956 recording with Victoria de los Angeles conducted by the composer, surely one of the greatest vocal recordings ever made. Bachianas Brasileiras No.2 has the orchestral toccata ‘The Little Train of the Caipura’, No.4 of the set, a charming and realistic sound portrait of a small steam-train chuffing its way through the Brazilian countryside. Every guitarist worth his salt plays Chôros No.1, and there are several more pieces that surface occasionally – the massively difficult Rudipoêma written for Arthur Rubinstein, and the piano and orchestra version of Momoprécoce which Nelson Freire and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played at the Proms in 2012 under Marin Alsop.                           It’s one thing to ask ‘what else of Villa-Lobos?’ It’s quite another to ask ‘what else from Brazil?’ The answer is ‘very little’. Just as some countries on the American continent have yet to cotton on to Elgar and Vaughan Williams, we have yet to discover what is on offer from Brazil. Who has heard anything by the earliest native-born Brazilian composers from the first half of the 19th century: the violinist and composer of religious music Damião Barbosa de Araujo (1778-1856), José Reboucas (1789-1843), the first Brazilian to study music in Europe, or José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), the mulatto son of a Portuguese colonist and slave girl, now regarded as the father of Brazilian music (his models were Handel and Gluck)?                                  The fact that the classical music tradition only began to develop in Brazil at this time was largely due to the Emperor Pedro 1, himself a good amateur composer. He wrote the first national anthem that Brazil used (1822), replaced on his abdication in 1831 by today’s Brazilian National Hymn composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865). Fans of Louis Moreau Gottschalk will be familiar with his Grande Fantasia Triunfal sobre o Hino Nacional Brasileiro, a barn-storming crowd-pleaser (with or without orchestra) memorably recorded  in 1927 by the Brazilian virtuoso Guiomar Novaes.                                                

      Brazilian music came of age with Carlos Gomes (1836-1896). His once-popular opera Il Guarany was heard all over the world (it was actually premiered in Italy before being produced in Brazil); the overture – once it gets going – is well worth a listen. Gomes’s music has not entirely disappeared. There’s an aria by him on Cielo e Mar, Rolando Villazón’s 2008 solo debut album on DG: ‘Ah! Sei tu fra gli angeli’ from the opera Fosca is a surprising discovery.                                                                                                             Among Villa-Lobos’s immediate precursors were Alexander Levi (1864-1892), Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920), who composed the first orchestral suite based on Brazilian themes, and Henrique Oswald (1852-1931). Track down the latter’s four-movement Symphony, Op.43 (recorded on the obscure Tratore label) for another unexpected (tonal / tuneful) treat. Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez (1897-1948) from Rio de Janeiro is a further name with which we should be more familiar. His prolific output with works in all forms makes much use of Brazilian themes (his ballet Amayá even uses Inca themes) and includes his orchestral suite Reisado do Pastoereio (1930). The last of its three movements, ‘Batuque’ (an Afro-Brazilian dance), became hugely popular in Latin America and the United States and can be heard in an explosive live performance conducted by Toscanini on the Guild label. Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1937), self-taught and described by Villa-Lobos as ‘a true incarnation of the soul of musical Brazil’, composed a huge amount of piano music – more than 80 tangos and 40 waltzes – a kind of Brazilian Scott Joplin. Try Iara Behs’s selection on Naxos. There you will find his best-known work, the deliciously-catchy Odeon (1910)                                                                                      Arguably the foremost Brazilian composer after Villa-Lobos was Francisco Mignone (1897-1986) but when did we ever hear any of his numerous symphonic works? Most of his early and late pieces are based on Brazilian rhythms and melodies – in the late ‘50s he branched out into polytonal, serial territory – with such predictable titles as Fantasia Brasileira (four pieces for piano and orchestra) and Suite Brasileira as well as others such as the enticing-sounding dance Batucajé (featuring the native instruments reco-reco, chocalho and cuica), the ballet O Espantalho (Scarecrow), and Festa das Igrejas (depicting four cathedrals of Brazil) performed by the NBC orchestra in New York under Mignone’s direction in 1942). Other forgotten and / or ignored names include João Gomes de Araujo, Francisco Braga (his 1937 Piano Trio is worth digging out), Hekel Tavares and Camargo Guarnieri. There are many more.                                                    Apart from their nationalist outlook, there is one thing in their music they all seem to have in common: a lack of angst and neuroticism. Joy, exuberance and rhythmic vitality are elements one would naturally expect from the land of the samba and bossa nova. Misery and despair feature rarely. Introspection, yes, but bathed in sunshine. Is that why we in Europe – or at least in the UK – seldom have the opportunity to hear what Brazil has produced over the last 200 years? Do the taste makers and programme builders perceive Brazilian classical music to be, well, not quite good enough? Too light-hearted and carefree? Not enough solemnity and soul-searching? Too much – I scarcely dare suggest it – like fun? I do hope that’s not the reason. I really do.

This article is also published on the Gramophoine website @ http://gramophone.co.uk/blog/gramophone-guest-blog/with-the-world-cup-looming-where-is-all-the-brazilian-music?

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