On record – Manuel Barrueco, José Staneck, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero – Villa-Lobos: Guitar & Harmonica Concertos (Naxos)

Manuel Barrueco (guitar), José Staneck (harmonica), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (1951)
Sexteto Místico (1917-55)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1955)
Quinteto Instrumental (1957)

Sexteto Místico: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Layla Köhler (oboe), Douglas Braga (alto saxophone), Fábio Zanon (guitar), Rogério Zaghi (celesta), Suélem Sampaio (harp)
Quinteto Instrumental: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Adrian Petrutiu (violin), Ederson Fernandes (viola), Adriana Holtz (cello), Suélem Sampaio (harp)

Naxos 8.574018 [60’04”]

Producer and Engineer Ulrich Schneider

Recorded 30-31 July (Guitar Concerto), 2-4 August 2017 (Harmonica Concerto), 29 April 2018 (Sexteto & Quintet), 2017 Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Naxos make a significant addition to their series The Music of Brazil with works from the country’s favourite classical music son, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos’ instrument was the guitar, and it takes centre stage for the much-loved Concerto, complemented by its cousin for harmonica and orchestra. Two chamber-sized pieces for six and five instrumentalists respectively complete an attractive line-up.

What’s the music like?

Warm and sunny – a perfect counterpart to the gloomy late mornings and early evenings of December!

The Guitar Concerto is especially good, a compact design with the small orchestra complementing the guitar perfectly. The piece has an easy going nature from the beginning but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial, as the wistful second theme proves. The slow movement is elegant but also keenly felt, with a thoughtful yet virtuosic cadenza that leads straight into the finale, which is crisp and incisive.

It is still unusual to hear the combination of harmonica and orchestra in a classical context, and the instrument’s piercing tone won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, no matter how good the performance. That said, Villa-Lobos, who wrote the Harmonica Concerto for the skilled American harmonica player John Sebastian, gives the main instrument plenty of good tunes and soulful inflections.

The small-scale works accompanying the concertos are both attractive too. The Sexteto Místico appears to have had a chequered history. Begun in 1917, when composers were exploring alternative sonorities in their chamber music, it was not published until final completion in 1955. It paints attractive colours of pastel shades, the addition of guitar and celesta giving it an exotic air, especially in the unison passages. Meanwhile the bigger Quinteto Instrumental feels more classical in its instrumentation and musical language, again using consonant harmonies that radiate sunshine. With a warm sonic picture the recorded sound is ideal.

Does it all work?

Much of it does. The Guitar Concerto receives an ideal performance that feels wholly authentic with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment. Their dialogue with Manuel Barrueco is beautifully observed and lovingly phrased under Giancarlo Guerrero‘s direction, and Barrueco gives an excellent account of a justly popular work.

José Staneck is on brilliant form in the Harmonica Concerto, with impressive virtuosity complemented by lyricism, but even that and a sensitive orchestral accompaniment do not quite win me over on the work. It could just be a case of unfamiliarity with the harmonica in this context though, so don’t let that put you off!

The sextet and quintet are ideal, sunlight streaming in on these affectionate accounts that capture the fluid writing for harp, guitar and celesta round the edges.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s great to see Villa-Lobos programmed in this way, and the disc has great warmth and hence enormous appeal. Barrueco’s version of the Guitar Concerto is a great modern complement to those made by John Williams, Julian Bream and Narciso Yepes, and the couplings show off the composer’s versatility and invention.



You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here

Stravinsky – Works for piano and orchestra

Featured recording: Stravinsky – Works for piano and orchestra (Chandos)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a specialist in 20th century piano music, teams up with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra to present Stravinsky’s complete music for piano and orchestra. Happily this includes the wonderful Petrouchka!

What’s the music like?

Stravinsky was not a piano virtuoso in the way fellow Russians Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were, but he developed his own distinctive style of writing for the instrument.

This new collection from Chandos brings together some of the grittier works for the combination with functional titles – Movements, Capriccio, Concerto for piano and wind) with the dazzling colours of his second ballet Petrouchka. For this Bavouzet had to adapt his own routine as a soloist to go and sit in the orchestra.

Stravinsky writes with little sentiment when using the piano, and Movements, the Capriccio and the Concerto all tend to explore the instrument as a form of percussion rather than outright lyrical content. So we get punchy syncopations, spicy chords and incisive rhythms, as a matter of course – but in some of the slower moments of the Concerto there is an unexpected depth of feeling when the piano is pitted with slow brass. The Capriccio, too, can sparkle in places, with some florid writing for the right hand that seems to derive from the Baroque period.

Petrouchka, on the other hand, is a riot of melody, a circus full of orchestral tricks, with brilliant, showy figures and thrilling mixes of colour.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. The ballet receives an ideal performance in vivid sound, its orchestral inventions caught by Tortelier with crisp ensemble, sudden moments of fragility and out-and-out duels between the instruments. This bright, invigorating music is ideally contrasted by the gritty Movements, with its terse musical language.

The performances of the Capriccio and Concerto are terrific, the former with some wonderfully exuberant outbursts and the former taking time for contemplation in its slow movement. That said, the moment when then piano barges into the conversation of the winds (1’33” into the disc) is the dramatic equal of anything in the ballet.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Stravinsky may be a grumpy old so and so at times in his music, but some of his finest invention is here!

Listen on Spotify

Bavouzet’s recordings are not on the streaming service yet, but samples from each track can be heard here