Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra by Heitor Villa-Lobos


Had Heitor Villa-Lobos not existed, the large and culturally wealthy nation of Brazil would have been more apparently rich in composers: Gomes and Braga in the 19th century, Fernandez and Mignone early in the 20th, Gnattali and Guarnieri in later years.  These are the names best known outside Brazil.  Yet Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) so clearly dominated the country's musical life, artistically and pedagogically, that we tend to underestimate all the others.

He was a formidable character, with his Gargantuan consumption of cigars and strong Brazilian coffee; his organizational ability as seen in his school music activities; and his eminence in international concert life.  He also seemed gifted with a flair for attracting press, as when his New York Skyline was broadcast from Rio to open the Brazilian Pavilion (1940) at that year's New York World's Fair: its melody was devised by tracing the outline of a photograph of Manhattan's skyline on music score paper.

The outline of Villa-Lobos' career, like the profile of Manhattan, is jagged in the extreme.  Cafe musician and wanderer in his teens...conservatory student in his early twenties...collector of folk music in the interior of Brazil in his late twenties...Rio celebrity and composing prodigy in his thirties...Paris "student" and school music administrator in his forties..."grand old man" in Brazil for the rest of his life.

Since his first visit to the United States in 1944, Villa-Lobos and his music have been highly popular in the north; his musical play Magdalena was a fair success in 1948 on the West Coast and in New York, and about the same time his Bachianas brasileiras No., 5 achieved the status of a "hit" in Bidu Sayao's recording.  Without their familiarity with Villa-Lobos' distinctive blend of Brazilian folkloric dance rhythms and classical styles, jazz musicians and public alike could hardly have been so receptive to the "bossa nova" which so heavily influenced American popular music in the early 1960's.

"Bossa nova" rhythms applied to a romantic lyricism characterize the Guitar Concerto here recorded.  It was completed in Rio in 1951, long before coinage of the "bossa nova" tag.  If Brazilian popular music is the Concerto's exterior dress, its limbs are that of the Baroque concerto as typified by Corelli, Vivald and Bach.  (Villa-Lobos' neo-Baroque suites of Bachianas brasileiras, "homage to Bach, Brazilian style," are merely his most explicit tributes to his great predecessor by two centuries).  Here, as in the typical Baroque concerto, the soloist engages in brilliant interplay with a small orchestra; economic thematic material is treated inventively and elaborated in the "Baroque" fashion, with sequence (repetition at another position on the scale) and counterpoint (simultaneous melodic lines).  The movements are fast-slow-fast, with the addition of a developmental "cadenza" or interlude before the final section.  The Concerto is dedicated to the great Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia.

Villa-Lobos knew the technique of the guitar intimately, as the virtuoso demands of this Concerto demonstrate.  He was an accomplished performer on the instrument and composed etudes and chamber music for it throughout his career.  Perhaps because of its unpretentious form, the Concerto has not yet gained the popularity it deserves, and Brazil-born Almeida, who enjoyed a close personal friendship with the composer, had to work from the manuscript score to prepare this first recording.,  He performed the work at Detroit and Honolulu in late 1965 and at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1966.

Sylvious Leopold Weiss was the most celebrated lutenist in Baroque Germany, living from 1686 to 1750, and was thus an almost exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach,  Weiss knew Handle and Bach personally, and served as musician to several great European courts, for the latter part of his life at Dresden.

The Baroque "suite" was a series of dance forms from Italy and France (though not intended for dancing) arranged to form a diverting succession of tempos and rhythms - pieces of melodic interest rather than formal, intended to delight the performer and the listener, but not to engage his intellectual concentration.  Weiss composed at least six suites for the lute; two suites and a partita (practically the same thing) as well as other pieces are attributed to Bach, who may well have strummed a bit on the lute and who surely encountered Weiss in Dresden at more than one point in his career.

The lute's modern descendant, the guitar, is the natural medium for this music in our own century; Laurindo Almeida, was also accomplished as a lutenist, has made it accessible to wider circles of performers and audiences through his masterful transcriptions.  The Bach Ariso borrowed from the most famous harpsichord concerto, makes an attractive encore piece in its guitar arrangement, a liberty sanctioned by Bach's own habit of freely adapting his music for other instruments to play.