The title of Nelson Freire’s new Decca recording, released a few days ago, is Brasileiro—Villa-Lobos & Friends. Its 30 tracks provide the Brazilian pianist the opportunity to survey the piano repertoire of his native land over a roughly 60-year period between 1890 and 1950. As might be anticipated, the majority of the tracks cover music composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos between 1919 and 1940. The other composers in the collection, Alexandre Levy (1864–1892), Henrique Oswald (1852–1931), Barrozo Netto (1881–1941), Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897–1948), Francisco Mignone (1897–1986), Camargo Guarnieri (1907–1993) and Claudio Santoro (1919–1989), are less likely to be familiar to most listeners, although many may recognize Levy’s Brazilian tango has having been appropriated by Darius Milhaud for the final section of his Opus 58 “cinema-symphony on South American tunes,” “Le Boeuf sur le Toit.”
One may guess from the number of tracks that all of the selections are short. No single track comes close to five minutes in duration; and there are only two multi-track compositions. Fernández’ Opus 62 sonatina is actually a collection of three etudes arranged in a fast-slow-fast architecture; and Villa-Lobos’ Carnaval das Crianças (children’s carnival) is a suite of seven evocative scenes. Neither or these works lasts for more than ten minutes.
Thus, the album as a whole gives the impression of a collection of encore pieces. On the basis of the biographical sketches provided by Manoel Correa do Lago for the accompanying booklet, this would be a significant misrepresentation of most, if not all, of the composers selected by Freire. Furthermore, there is not much variation in the “encore style” of those selections. While there is a fair amount of technical virtuosity, the rhetoric tends, for the most part, to be low-key, making for a collection that may best be appreciated in small samples.
Nevertheless, there is one selection that deserves more than passing attention, if only for its historical value. This is “New York Skyline,” whose theme was “derived” from laying a skyline image on a piece of graph paper. As the above image illustrates, this was presented as Villa-Lobos’ experimentation with the Schillinger System of Musical Composition, the attempt by Joseph Schillinger to base the composition of music on mathematical processes. Villa-Lobos used this technique only to derive the right-hand melody, allowing the left hand to provide a thoroughly Brazilian context of both harmonies and rhythms. As might be guessed, this is one of those compositions that is talked about more than performed. Freire should be saluted for providing an account of it, demonstrating Villa-Lobos’ skill in working effectively with such an odd melodic contour.