Or should I say, Villa-Lobos back in New York? For the Brazilian composer was a great traveler and performed often in this city. And yet, although he was an extraordinarily prolific composer, only a very small fraction of his immense and varied output is well known and continues reasonably present on the concert stage. His most famous work is doubtlessly the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 for eight cellos and soprano, one of the 9 suites composed in homage to Bach, of whom he was a passionate admirer, and in which he meshed the Baroque musical language with that of the Brazilian folklore he knew so well. It has often been noted that Villa-Lobos is to Brazil as Bartók to Hungary or Sibelius to Finland, highly sophisticated composers with a deep love and knowledge of their national roots.
Dr. Alfred Heller, the eminent pianist, conductor and musicologist, is a champion of Villa-Lobos in New York. He was, in his own words, very fortunate to have met and worked with Villa-Lobos, having thus become one of the foremost authorities on the Brazilian composer. Furthermore, he founded the Villa-Lobos Music Society, to which we owe this evening’s performance.
To commemorate Villa-Lobos’s 125th birthday (he was born on March 5th, 1887), Dr. Heller devised a singular program, choosing to play a particularly difficult piece for solo piano dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, the “Rudepoema”. It is an extraordinarily dense and flashy piece which nevertheless demands infinitely more than sheer virtuosity. If treated carelessly, it can sound like clusters of sometimes explosive, sometimes dreamy notes, completely unrelated to one another. The difficulty is thus in bringing the piece together and in allowing the passages to breathe and the thematic material to appear, all of which Dr. Heller did with great sensitivity.
The complete “Serestas” song cycle occupied the entire second half of the program. These are lieder in which Villa-Lobos beautifully set to music poems by some of the best Brazilian writers and poets of his time: Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Alvaro Moreyra, Olegário Mariano, Mario de Andrade, Dante Milano, Ronald de Carvalho, Ribeiro Couto, David Nasser, Guilherme de Almeida and Abgar Renault. Villa-Lobos is here totally immersed in his favorite element, as the words are often deeply rooted, if not directly in Brazilian folklore, at least in the Brazilian culture and spirit.
The cycle was performed by German mezzo-soprano Sandra Schwartzhaupt. I had no idea what to expect. I read that the magnificent Russian-born, later American mezzo Jennie Tourel, whose recordings of some of the French song repertoire I remember hearing ages ago, also recorded some of these serestas. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what these sounded like. But I’m sure that they cannot have sounded any better than what we heard this evening.
Ms. Schwarzhaupt , to begin with, has a lovely stage presence. She is beautiful and graceful and totally devoid of irritating mannerisms. So what? will you ask. So, I answer, it’s not unusual to witness a singer, or, for that matter, any performer with this kind of physique, strive to put it in the limelight, and to, consciously or unconsciously, proceed to distract the viewer/listener from the substance of the performance. A case of matter before mind. Ms. Schwarzhaupt, on the other hand, puts her voice and her interpretation at the forefront. Listen, she indicates, to this wondrous music.
And listen we did, with immense pleasure and amazement, to her gorgeous and pure mezzo, as she took us on the journey through the different tonal and verbal structures, and through the diverse moods of these serestas.
What is even more astonishing is her total command of the music and the lyrics that she was introduced to only a couple of months ago. She does not speak Portuguese, and yet her delivery and her articulation were close to perfect, as was her understanding of the poems and their musical support. I would gladly have listened to the whole cycle again – and I told Ms. Schwartzhaupt that I hope she will record them some day.
Dr. Heller accompanied her with Gerald Moore-like respect for the music, the words and the singer, a likewise noteworthy achievement.
Dr. Heller’s son, tenor Mark Heller, who had so far acted as his father’s page-turner, joined Sandra in a charming duet called “Vira”, also a Villa-Lobos staple. A fitting conclusion to a most satisfying evening.