We have long needed a good modern recording of the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, and this set fills the bill nicely. It was exactly 20 years ago, back in 1985, that the late Kenneth Schermerhorn made one of the most distinguished contributions to the early Marco Polo catalog in the form of Villa-Lobos' Choros Nos. 8 and 9, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. So it's fitting that the maestro returns to the field of his early success two decades later in this valedictory release.
There has been a good deal of recording activity in several of these works, including the recent BIS disc of Nos. 2-4, but no really good complete set has appeared since the old EMI/Batiz edition with the Royal Philharmonic. That includes theRead more composer's own mono recordings, which are useful as guides to pacing and phrasing but are technically third rate in terms of orchestral playing. Jesus Lopez-Cobos on Telarc (Nos. 2, 4, and 8) and Michael Tilson Thomas on RCA (Nos. 4, 5, 7, and 9) also have weighed in successfully with single discs, though the latter's habit of gussying up the composer's orchestration with a hyperactive glockenspiel part is both tacky and annoying.
This newcomer improves on most of these in several respects, not least the remarkably rich and full string playing of the Nashville Symphony in Nos. 1, 5, and 9. The orchestra's cellos in particular reveal an excellent corporate sense of rhythm and well-focused intonation, with none of that grinding and rumbling in the lower register that can ultimately prove so aurally fatiguing. In No. 5, soprano Rosana Lamosa's quick vibrato may not be to everyone's taste, but I like the earthy timbre of her voice. It suits the music and sounds remarkably similar to the tone of the solo cello that partners her. José Feghali's characterful piano playing represents an improvement over the less imaginative Jean Louis Steuerman on BIS, though for me this still remains the weakest piece in the set. None of the extant versions conceals the music's tendency to ramble.
In No. 4, the BIS recording is more spectacular, with excitingly present percussion that sounds rather muffled here (though not in No. 2's famous final toccata). But Schermerhorn delivers the more flavorsome performance, full of riotous color and that feeling of organized chaos that makes the music so exotic and so much fun. The orchestra's principal flute and bassoon play No. 6 as well as anyone has, and the full ensemble really does itself proud in Nos. 7 and 8. It's always worth keeping in mind that Nashville is a musical city, and the style of music really isn't the issue. What matters is the opportunity for first rate instrumentalists to find regular work, whether in the Nashville Symphony or in the studio, and the result is an ensemble of crack players with the ability to learn quickly and play accurately.
The orchestra's sheer professionalism, allied to Schermerhorn's lively and sympathetic response to the composer's idiom, pays big dividends here--because let's face it, some of these pieces aren't even repertory items in Brazil. Consider, for example, that the last complete set from that country regularly available, featuring the Brazil Symphony under Isaac Karabtchevsky, arguably was the worst of them all. The sonics here ideally could be a touch clearer, as noted above in connection with No. 4, but otherwise all credit goes to Naxos, Schermerhorn, the orchestra, and conductor Andrew Mogrelia (in No. 1) for giving us a wonderful new cycle of this richly rewarding and vibrant music at a price that everyone can afford.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less