ARRIAGA: Los esclavos felices Overture. Symphony in D. SEIXAS: Sinfonia in B flat. CARVALHO: L'amore industrioso Overture. MOREIRA: Symphony in B flat. PORTUGAL: Il Duca di Foix Overture.
Algarve Orch/Alvaro Cassuto, cond.
NAXOS: 8557207  (B) (DDD) TT: 58 min

VILLA-LOBOS:   Sinfonietta No.1. Symphony No 7.
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orch/Carl St. Clair, cond.
CPO  999713  (F) (DDD) TT: 58 min.

The shockingly short-lived Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-26) is featured composer on this Naxos disc from the Algarve in Portugal, but the other four are Portuguese, while Heitor Villa-Lobos was the citizen of a nation colonized by Portugal a couple of centuries earlier. On Naxos, Arriaga is not only first-featured but indubitably the most talented of the Iberian five. It’s always a pleasure to rediscover his Symphony in D from the “last years” of his 19 on the earth ( he died just 10 days short of his 20th birthday) and the Overture to the one opera he composed (at least that has survived) at the precocious age of 13! -- Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves), in the prevailing Italian style of the time Otherwise, his only other published works were three string quartets. For that matter, despite celebrity in France, the symphony seems not to have been performed until 1888, or published until 1933. The influence of Beethoven and Schubert can be felt, which is not to say copied, in Arriaga’s major-minor shifts and a pathos that conductor Álvaro Cassuto tends to underplay, although he is plainly a schooled leader.

The piece by Carlos Seixas (1704-42) is genre music in the Italian style, while the Joao de Sousa Carvalho's (1745-98) opera overture is imitation-Italian. Things get a little more interesting in the circa-1803 Sinfonia in B-flat by António Leal Moreira (1758-1819), in fact an overture in the Italian style with echoes of the Lisbon modinha, an indigenous popular song. But the next most interesting music after Arriaga’s is the overture by Marcos Portugal (1762-1830), longest-lived of the four Portuguese composers on this disc and an admirer, easy to hear, of Cimarosa. The orchestra is a new one, founded in 2002, and based in Faro, the capital of the Algarve but funded as well by five other cities in the province, plus the local University, and the Ministry of Culture. The recording by a team perhaps from Britain is satisfactory, although Arriagistas are not likely to part with recordings by Charles Mackerras in particular, or Jesús López-Cobos.

As for Villa-Lobos, he wrote 12 symphonies between 1916 and 1957 (without caring especially for the form) which cpo plans to record in their entirety, presumably with Carl St. Clair conducting the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, of which he has been permanent guest conductor since 1998-99 (without giving up his Pacific Orchestra of Orange County). The Seventh, in four traditional (which is not to say conventional) movements, was written in 1945 – the year V-L founded the National Conservatory in Rio – for a competition in Detroit. He submitted it under a waggish assumed name, but evidently didn’t win because he led the premiere four years later with the London Symphony Orchestra. Gerard Béhague’s program note tells us it was written for a large orchestra including 37 wind instruments, two harps, piano, and “extended percussion” (plus of course strings). Three of the four movements feature sonata-form structure (the slow movement is a “rondo-like” Lento) and specific key centers, although anyone who knows Villa-Lobos’ music knows his free-ranging harmonic and procedural personality. Actually the symphony, which makes a great noise from time to time, is unusually by-the-book until a finale that goes off in several directions without a map, as it were. But there is a recurring “main theme” and a logical ending. If Villa-Lobos is your man, your ought to like Symphony No. 7. The 21-minute Sinfonietta is an early work, 1916, dedicated to the memory of Mozart, in three movements for “classic chamber orchestra.” It is “based on two themes of Mozart” in contrasting moods – you can read about them in Béhague’s notes if the set interests you, but the piece strikes me as pretty thin gruel. You may feel differently. St. Clair conducts with his wonted élan, the orchestra plays as if to the choro and modinha born, and recordings were made in the Staasthalle Sindelfingen (love that name) in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Vivid sound from a radio team with lots of experience.

R.D. (June 2004)