Total Immersion: Villa-Lobos, Barbican, London – review

With the World Cup just over the horizon, everything Brazilian will soon be in the spotlight. For Heitor Villa-Lobos, the country’s best-known composer (how many others are there?), that cannot come too soon. Although Villa-Lobos’s name is familiar, it is entirely possible to go from year to year without hearing a note of his music in the UK’s major concert-halls.

The composers featured in the BBC’s Total Immersion series are usually living, or at least nearly contemporary. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is hardly that, but the purpose of the series is to widen musical horizons and there was plenty to discover in this day of events devoted to his music, including chamber pieces and unaccompanied choral works before the main evening orchestral concert.

Growing up in the early decades of the 20th century, Villa-Lobos was open to all the new strands of music coming out of Europe and the US. His challenge was to import those ideas and blend them with Brazilian traditions, producing a result that is an explosion of colour and energy, as though Stravinsky, Ravel and Gershwin have just disembarked from the plane for a day on the beach at Copacabana.

In the earlier works the influences are clear to see. Uirapurú, a depiction of a rare Amazonian bird of blazing colours in its version for full orchestra, sounds as if Villa-Lobos had just rushed home after hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the first time and copied down as much as of it as he could remember. Subsequent works, such as the series of Chôros – Nos. 8, with two pianos, and 10, with the BBC Symphony Chorus intoning the original text, were performed here – more successfully create a uniquely Brazilian blend of music.

Not everything worked. For all its vigour the Symphony No.9 felt short-breathed, as though the composer did not have the patience to think long-term as a symphony demands. But soprano Anu Komsi made the fifth and most popular of the Bachianas brasileiras gleam radiantly and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under chief conductor Sakari Oramo never stinted on the high-octane Brazilian carnival atmosphere. After such a hair-raising evening of non-stop virtuosity the BBCSO’s trumpeters probably had to go home and sleep for a week.

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Even more famous than Villa-Lobos / From Mr Alan Gous

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