Work: Concerto for Guitar, W 501
About This Work
Heitor Villa-Lobos' Concerto for guitar and orchestra is the late capstone to a revolutionary body of guitar works by the composer that began with his Études in 1929. Written for Andrés Segovia in 1951, the concerto itself bears the
mark of an old composer looking back on earlier, more severe styles and recuperating them into sentimental fantasy. The opening Allegro precioso perfectly displays the synthesizing fecundity of Villa-Lobos' melting-pot imagination. After the strings initiate a Bartók-like head-motto of folk-derived rigid declamation, the guitar immediately enters with a figuration characteristic of Villa-Lobos' earlier guitar works: the guitarist repeats a motive while traveling down the neck of the instrument. It's a simple gesture, but releases in its executive ease a delightful wealth of weird harmonies. Soon enough, the guitar and orchestra are confidently dialoguing and begin a magically continuous string of stylizations: one minute a ritornello of Bach-like polyphony and shape, the next a movie soundtrack vista. The argument passes through all manner of Villa-Lobosian masks, from the learned to the folk, from Beethovenian motivic development through modal sequences right out of Debussy's later work. The following Andantino e andante is even more infused with the wistful remembrance of Debussy, though suffused with Villa-Lobos' inextricable confidence and native tone. The movement is a multi-sectioned rhapsody singing through its tempo and style changes with an ever-intoxicating harmonic brew. Instead of Debussy's sentimentalized French folklore, Villa-Lobos' "Brazilian sentimental" inflected with the sound of northeast Brazilian folk melodies can be heard, yet without quite quoting anything specific. The cadenza is a feat: a fond look back by the composer to his back-breaking, beastly, beating guitar Études of 1929, in which the instrument is taken through its gauntlet of technical effects (harmonics, arpeggios, scales, madly repeated chords, and whimsical neck-sliding sequences) with suavity and bluster. Villa-Lobos originally wrote the concerto without a cadenza, but Segovia, ever the calculating (if reserved) showman, demanded the composer write him one. Villa-Lobos composed a veritable movement in itself for guitar alone and the cadenza is now known almost as much as an unaccompanied recital item as it is in its original context. The final Allegretto non troppo is announced by a declamatory sweep of the guitar's 12th-fret harmonics, after which the winds play out a groovy unison figure. This is quickly swept aside by further rhapsodizing, only to come back harmonized by the guitar itself. A parade of themes and thematic transformations ensue, each passage hinting at some type of popular dance (the Baroque gigue, the waltz, duple dances, etc.), simultaneously swathing it in a harmonic ambience of modal mixtures. The most structurally "liberated" of the movements, it spins through its luxurious guises until an abrupt bare-octave close.
-- Seth Brodsky
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