Chopinesque Choros: Villa-Lobos’s fifth piano concerto

Chopinesque Choros: Villa-Lobos’s fifth piano concerto

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In “The Almonac” Henrik Almon, library manager at Ricordi Berlin, presents works from the publishers’ inexhaustible repertoire that are worth hearing straight away yet are rather seldom to be found in the programming of the major opera houses and orchestras.

While working at the venerable house of Ricordi’s German branch, a low-profile denizen of Berlin’s hip Universal Music headquarters on Stralauer Allee, one can suddenly find oneself struggling against a sensation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Glancing through the transparent cubicles across endless canyons of corridors, I find the posters of Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Rammstein, the large flat-screen displays, the automatic coffee machines, and the trendy green plants next to revolving mirrored walls functioning as room dividers under space-age ceiling lights all blending into a shimmery mosaic of the popular motifs of the 21st-century workplace. In the next room, ambitious hip-hop acts are being signed and across the way songs are being insistently pitched as I pore over the rather crinkled A2-sized print of a score from the 1970s of a work from 1954, admiring the combination of fluffy handwritten notation and a master copy’s mildly faded music paper.  

The work with which I am immediately occupied is the fifth piano concerto of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Its number plainly indicates that Villa-Lobos wrote at least four others, a fact I cannot necessarily presume to be common knowledge in this country when I look at our history of performances to date. A pity, really, because each one of these concertos embraces a diversity of musical facets – and manages that within a relatively brief playing time of, on average, nearer 20 than the more usual 30 minutes.

But let’s come back to the fifth piano concerto. There is a wonderful audio recording of it, conducted by the composer and played by the work’s dedicatee, Felicja Blumental. Here I must disclose my predilection for unequivocally “historic” recordings. Especially for those in – to put it kindly – less than optimal sound quality. It hisses and crackles, the tape source may perhaps be mono, and there may well be some wrong notes here and there – none of this is problematic, however, but rather a noble proof of authenticity!

Villa-Lobos’s conducting of his own piano concerto bears witness to the period in which this music was written. When, after the orchestral introduction, Felicja Blumental intones her first chords in the fifth piano concerto, the decidedly “historic” sound quality of this recording makes it especially easy for me to succumb to the illusion of glimpsing a bygone age. Perhaps in this concrete example, my fondness for historic recordings only reinforces what the music is already saying. For me, the special beauty of this work is that this illusion already seems to be contained in the unfolding of the music itself. The first movement’s brief orchestral introduction has the effect of a dramatic revolt against deepening involvement in the melancholic vortex of passing time. It opens with strings struggling upward energetically, but heavy wind tutti soon drag the music back down and the driving tempo is doggedly held back. By now, the listener has been completely drawn in and reaches the moment when the curtains part and the piano makes its appearance. We’ve arrived. But where, actually? The bygone age that opens itself doesn’t seem to me entirely that of 1950s Vienna where this recording was made.

Maybe a breath of Frédéric Chopin’s spirit also wafts around the combination of this work and this recording: the piano’s first theme smacks of High Romanticism, and Felicja Blumental, born in 1908 in Warsaw, is still regarded as one of the most important interpreters of this composer’s works. Her phrasing and rubati in the piano part of Villa-Lobos’s concerto also have a lot to say about the particular piano-school tradition to which she belongs as a graduate of the Warsaw Conservatory.

Or is it perhaps French esprit that speaks to me from this piano concerto? Didn’t Chopin make his career in Paris, and didn’t Villa-Lobos celebrate his international breakthrough there? Is what I hear between the hissing and crackling of the digitized record on my Spotify playlist perhaps a mélange of disparate influences, amalgamated in the crucible of a passion for the French artistic capital?

But this notion is already called into question by the piano concerto’s second movement. Running through it is an incredibly tragic melody over a diatonically descending bass line. Villa-Lobos is evidently referring here to elements of the modinha, an 18th-century Brazilian song form cultivated in the region around Rio de Janeiro. Reference to traditional Brazilian music was almost always an important element of Villa-Lobos’s work, not least on account of his musical socialization in the popular improvising choro instrumental ensembles that developed in Rio towards the beginning of the 20th century.

Rio is also the geographical link between the composer and the pianist Felicja Blumental, who fled there from the Nazis with her family during World War II. And so Villa-Lobos keeps us in the dark. I feel a certain sense of musical homecoming in the crackling noise of this recording of his fifth piano concerto – and yet find myself floating in a diffuse and nebulous space that spans over 200 years and two continents.

For me, Villa-Lobos is in any event a post-modern composer par excellence, a textbook example of the musical symbiosis of diverse traditions and stylistic trends. In addition to producing a mind-boggling quantity of compositions in varied forms and sizes, on the side he tinkered at creating a Gesamtkunstwerk involving himself as an artistic character. Determined to achieve fame, he cunningly positioned himself in the Parisian art world of the Twenties with “fake news” about himself and his compositions, thereby fabricating the myth-enshrouded image of a composing genius from the tropical jungle – an image that not only found traction in 1920s Paris with its craze for exoticism but has persisted to this day, even in the face of mostly quite different musical parameters.

Back to the present. With the beats still pulsing through the office corridor, our pop colleagues suddenly make their way past my office to the coffee machine. Perfect timing, I think to myself, shoving the score to one side and quickly joining them. In the kitchen, we waggishly lift our espressos in toasts to Villa-Lobos and the freshly signed rapper, and I bask in post-modernism and even, perhaps, in being in the right place at the right time after all.

The orchestral material for Villa-Lobos’s fifth piano concerto, despite being partly handwritten, is highly legible and clearly produced.

Concerto pour piano et orchestre n° 5

pf - - - timp.perc - hp - str (divisées)

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The author

Henrik Almon has been responsible since 2013 for the rental department of Ricordi Berlin. Since then, he has constantly been rummaging through the labyrinthine entanglements of 200 years of publishing history, music archives scattered across Europe, analog and digital data banks as well as cryptic messages concerning the delivery of shipped parcels.

Prior to his life at Ricordi, Henrik Almon virtuously completed a rock-solid business course before plunging into the academic depths of musicology, media studies and literature. His studies took him from Weimar and Jena via Paris to Brazil, where he worked for a time as a piano teacher. An enduring passion for Brazilian composers culminated in 2018 in the completion of his dissertation “Discourses on Art-Music in Brazil in the First Half of the 20th Century”. Outside of Ricordi he continues to be an ardent violinist in one of the many Berlin university orchestras.

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Photos: Durand Salabert (Villa-Lobos), Laurence Chaperon/UMG (Universal Music building), Marie-Louise James (The Almonac)