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Recital 2016 Part 2: Berlioz, Grieg and Villa Lobos

I wish I could have included more Wolf settings of Eichendorff on my Zankel program. And Schumann’s op. 39, for that matter. And the entirety of Les nuits d’été  while I’m at it, except my audience does need to get home eventually!  But since Berlioz’s famous Théophile Gautier settings complement—in their Gallic way—the German Romantics on the other side of tonight’s program, I settled for three of Berlioz’s set of six songs.  Although the supernal orchestral version of Les nuits d’été is well known, many fans of the piece are not aware that these mélodies were first written for piano and mezzo-soprano or tenor (except for “Au cimetière which calls exclusively for tenor). The songs were orchestrated, some of them transposed, and some had additional musical material added to them over a fifteen-year period before the orchestral version that is most commonly performed today was published in 1856.  I don’t mean to invite comparisons between the orchestral and piano versions of these songs—I love the orchestral version too! But the smaller scale of the piano version creates a more intimate, private engagement with the songs and permits a wider range of vocal colors and use of textual details that were in Berlioz’s ear when he first composed them in 1841.  “Villanelle,” for example, takes on a percussive energy in the piano version that suggests a rambunctious youth leaping through the forest with his sweetheart rather than Diana elegantly escorting some young lovers into a shady grove.  Similarly, the charming seducer in the piano version of “L’île inconnue” leaps and bounds along the pier with great alacrity and roughness as he spins his sweetly innocent yarn to la jeune belle.  Without the sostenuto underpinning of strings in “Au cimetière the ghostly quality of the text becomes secondary to the heartbeat that throbs beneath the hyper-legato vocal line.

In total, I find that the orchestral version does better suit a female voice whose overtones and inherently softer-grained sound blend with a band to create a smoky, ethereal, and very FRENCH atmosphere. By the same token, I find the piano version lends its percussive and subsequently more insistent rhythmic vitality better to a male voice.  I find it immensely touching when a women sings a male character in song, and vice versa. (Although they often omit singing the female-narrated song,  I think men singing Grieg’s op. 36 should always include Die verschwiege Nachtigall” because I find the empathy of assuming the voice of the opposite sex a beautifully vulnerable gesture that draws attention to our assumptions about how we address gender, and—in this case—sexuality.) So when a girl sings “L’île inconnue” the man seducing the young woman in the song takes on a kind of comforting, maternal tenor (no pun intended) that is lovely and embedded somewhere in the text and music, but it obscures the primary sexual impulse that energizes the song.  Even in this amazingly vivid (and, of course, magnificently sung) rendition by the great Janet Baker cannot help but feel safe. Charming as it is, there is not the hint of danger that a the male seducer brings with him.

Besides issues of voice type, the piano version also affords certain vocal colors and effects that singing with an orchestra does not permit.  This difference is most notable in “Au Cimetière” where the 2nd person address of the song becomes a hushed, deeply private address to a single person rather than a TEDtalk about ghost hunting.  Ok, maybe I am overstating the difference but when the singer asks the audience, “Do you know the white tomb,” the intimacy that the smaller setting and ensemble permit makes the question and the whole song less of a performance and more of a conversation about haunting metaphysical fears and fascination that creep into each of our minds.  I haven’t been able to find out much about tenor Robert Peters besides some youtube clips, but his performance of this song is just perfect in its hushed, elegant, amazement.  Enjoy, and let me know if you know more about him! 

Unlike all the other sets of songs on my program, the three Villa Lobos songs on the program use the text of three different poets.  Not only are the poems different in tone, but Villa Lobos also employs wildly varied musical styles to set them.  This variety is typical of the Brazilian master whose two primary influences were Bach and “the map of Brazil,” as he claimed.  Although he applied received European tradition in his technique (including from Stravinsky who—probably resenting Villa Lobos appropriating his innovations—burned him hilariously when he asked, “why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like it is always by Villa Lobos?”) Villa Lobos always applied his voracious talent and energy to making the immensely diverse musical landscape of his homeland manifest in his music.

Like Berlioz, Villa Lobos was not a pianist and his compositions, especially his orchestrations, exhibit a highly individual musical imagination at play.  Villa Lobos’ oeuvre reflects Brazil’s history of European colonials eventually blending their culture with those of indigenous peoples and African slaves brought to mine the land’s bounteous natural resources. These disparate cultures are unified in his music by the unmistakable rhythms of Brazilian folk music—most iconic in the samba—and Saudade, a nostalgia tinged with regret, a melancholic longing the expression of which is at the core of Brazilian culture.  Saudade is Brazil’s underlying cultural ethos that is a rough equivalent to German Sehnsucht.  In seeking connections between all the music on this program, no matter how distant, I hope the pairing of these similar but distinct spiritual, national, notions help illuminate each one for the audience.

The mournful inflections “Cançào do Poeta do Século XVIII” describes this saudade for what cannot be, a longing for a dream that will not come true.  Villa Lobos uses the archaic poetry to suggest the formal structure of an art song but writes the piano accompaniment like a guitar part of a folk song to suggest a union of “classical” and “pop” music.  This beautiful version for guitar and voice demonstrates why I feel that Villa Lobos was often just transcribing in classical form what is essentially folk music.  It is not formalized in the way the Beethoven, for example, attempted to do, but rather a straightforward attempt to write down a folk song.

Evocaçào” eshews this kind of elegant restraint in favor of a hot-blooded, full throated lament.  Its form of saudade takes the most literal form of the examples on display in our program: “E eu vivo a chorar meu amor por você/And I live to weep for my love of you.”  Life is defined by yearning for and mourning the past.  Finally, Samba Classico sums up the work of Villa Lobos’ life.  The attributed poet is a pseudonym of the composer, and the song is a statement patriotic hopes and ideals.  Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, and the nation’s society has struggled with racism and vast inequality throughout its history.  Villa Lobos found his inspiration in the music of the poverty-stricken swaths of his homeland as well as in homes of the well-heeled who imported Old World art and who underwrote his career.  He worked to produce an international profile of modern Brazilian music that reflected the nation’s resilience and irrepressible spirit that had survived endless political turmoil and the violence that came with it.  In “Samba Classico” Villa Lobos blends his Bachian polyphony with the quintessential rhythm of Brazil to give voice to a vision of a nation whose spirit is as beautiful and bounteous as its land, and whose people deserve justice and dignity.  Although the poem describes a beautiful, immense land whose people are blessed to live there where there is no bigotry and every one is treated equally, the music has an undercurrent of anger that clearly underscores the distance between Brazil’s stated ideals of equality and the reality of life there.   This song deserves to be sung in my country too. Sambar!