VILLA-LOBOS:  Chôros No. 8.  Chôros No. 9
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch/Kenneth Schermerhorn, cond.

NAXOS 8.555241 (B) (DDD) TT:  41:55

These performances recorded at Hong Kong in 1985 were issued originally on Klaus Heymann's full-price, pre-Naxos, Marco Polo label. They don't sound remastered here, only repackaged with trilingual notes by Keith Anderson (which may or may not have carried over from Marco Polo along with the kitschy cover art). Since this was my first meeting I can't say more about format. It was also my first meeting with these two Chôros, selected from Villa-Lobos' collection of 14 for various instrumental combinations (plus chorus in the best one I know, No. 10, "Rasga o Coracao"), all written in the middle-to-later 1920s.

These are typical of his "street music" (or "chôro") pieces—an evocation of Rio's pre-Lenten Carnival in No. 8 for a very large orchestra, with lots of indigenous percussion and two pianos, one of them soloistic, the other an ensemble instrument. Unlike the Bachianas Brasileiras, nine such composed between 1930 and 1945 with multiple movements, the Chôros are collage-like—without, truth to tell, the kind of discrimination that Alberto Ginastera or Virgil Thomson or Aaron Copland practiced. Villa-Lobos was head-and-shoulders a better composer than his Argentine contemporary, Alberto Williams, and surely more prolific, but one doesn't sense an organizational method in much of this music from his Postwar-One Parisian period. Certainly not in No. 8, which is mostly —and rather simplistically—hectic after the initial novelty wears off (one instrument sounds like a mastiff's "woof"). Neither work, by the way, is banded; you have to make your own highlights-list by observing the timings.

No. 9 is allegedly non-specific, but considerably more evocative of Brazil's polyglot culture, a mixture of native Indian, African and Portuguese, with an overlay of assorted immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. One senses a kind of structure in its sequence of moods, and the Hong Kong players—thanks to Kenneth Schermerhorn's expertise as a builder of second-tier orchestras at home and abroad—sound more at home than, say, Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony in the RCA/BMG collection of four Bachianas and Chôros No.10. Ask not why; just enjoy what is flavorful here.

The recording is serviceable in an efficient way. Too bad it wasn't remastered, assuming the DDD original included room for improvement. Timing is skimpy, but not unreasonable at Naxos'going price (which varies from outlet to outlet, as I'm sure you've noticed by now). Of course I'd be a bit upset if I had shelled out $16 for a Marco Polo original (but I didn't—the name Heitor Villa-Lobos has never for me been a built-in guarantee of quality music-making).

R.D. (Oct. 2001)