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The South African Richard Wagner Society celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, and I will be including Franz Liszt’s transcription of “Isolde’s Liebestod” in the gala concert. Preparing a piano transcription of an operatic excerpt has led me to ask fascinating questions regarding the very nature of the piano, the art of the transcription, and the purpose of the performance. This blog puts some of my thoughts into perspective.

isolde Aubrey Beardsley

Isolde (1895) - Aubrey Beardsley

“Shall I breathe my last in sweet aromas?”

Just as Isolde reflects on her love for Tristan which has grown so intense and all-encompassing as to have no resolution other than death, Richard Wagner (1813-1882) distilled the crisis of nineteenth century Romanticism to one chord. At the same time the apotheosis of Romantic chromaticism and the gateway to atonality, Tristan und Isolde marks a turning point in the history of Western Classical music. No composer could remain untouched by his influence. Franz Liszt (1881-1886) and Wagner were exact contemporaries, becoming friends as early as 1842 when Wagner was becoming famous as a composer and Music Director of the Dresden Opera. Liszt eventually became Wagner’s father-in-law when Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima. Their friendship was based on mutual admiration, but given two such large personalities, not without conflict.

Liszt transcribed many pages from Wagner’s operas, often very shortly after the premiere. Transcriptions and arrangements for piano of various types of music was common in the nineteenth century. In the absence of recordings, these works were of vital importance for the dissemination of music. Sometimes these works very virtually direct transcriptions.

Liszt versus Thalberg

Concert pianists were also quick to write fantasies or paraphrases of popular items to show off their abilities both as pianists and as inventors of pianistic technique. This also enabled audiences to compare one virtuoso with another. Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) and Liszt were even pitted against each other in “contests”. Fashioned most often as sets of variations, these works vary from the dreary note-spinners to the creation of large-scale works able to stand on their own.

Steinway, N C Wyeth Wagner and Liszt

N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945): "Wagner and Liszt"

Transcription versus Paraphrase

Liszt excelled in both of these arias. Some of his operatic transcriptions are titled “Reminiscences”, “Fantasy on the motives of…” or “Souvenir of”, acknowledging at the outset that he is using the themes of the original merely as raw material for a newly fashioned work. A very good example of this is Rigoletto: Paraphrase de Concert d’après Verdi. Written by Liszt in 1859, the work is based on musical ideas taken from the opera Rigoletto, composed in 1851 by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The work is very successful as a reminiscence of the opera, but the music from the opera is not presented in chronological order, and Liszt appears to have had little interest in maintaining the original narrative or even stylistic congruency. Apart from the thematic material, the work is not “Verdian” in any sense but rather resembles Liszt’s other virtuosic works: daring leaps and filigree runs abound in a way that have very little to do with Giuseppe Verdi, who was refused entry to the Milan Conservatory of Music on the grounds of his bad piano playing.

On the other side of the spectrum are the great Operatic Transcriptions. Liszt attempts to recreate the original on the piano as truly and faithfully as possible. It is in this category that most of his Wagner transcriptions fall. Given that both composers were concerned with the idea of motivic transformation, it might have been tempting for Liszt to take some of Wagner’s themes and prove that they could be developed in different ways, in a sense of competing with Wagner as he had with Thalberg earlier in his career. Yet, somehow the music of Wagner immediately arrested this instinct in Liszt even more than the revered Master Beethoven. While Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are faithful piano-reductions, he felt free to paraphrase Beethoven’s works for the theatre.

In this category falls the big transcriptions such as the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Overture to Tannhäuser.

The Orchestra Versus the Piano

Liszt had already used the arrangement of songs as a vehicle for experimenting with piano colour and translating vocal lines to the piano. But with the operatic transcriptions he forged an entirely new path. His aim was to make the piano sound truly orchestral. The biggest difficulty in translating the music from one medium to another, is the limitations of the piano. Firstly, the sound starts dying the moment the note is played, unlike most orchestral instruments or the human voice, which can sustain and increase volume on a note. Also, in an orchestra, many different musicians can each be assigned an individual line, whereas a pianist is limited to what the ten fingers can reach.

Pianists and composers have devised many techniques to disguise this instrument’s “fatal flaw”. Liszt employed a stock arsenal of repeated chords, tremolos, arpeggios in his entire output for the instrument. At that time, Liszt and Chopin were pushing the boundaries of virtuosity to hitherto unseen levels.


Velazquez: The Dwarf Sebastian

Goya versus Velasquez

Today, the idea of listening to transcriptions when the original versions are available on recordings may seem at first a little superfluous. Yet, in the world of fine arts, “copying” a great painting is often used as a learning tool. Recreating the original as closely as possible, or copying or creating etchings of the original is viewed as a legitimate learning process. Spanish painter Francico Goya (1746-1828), copied and made etchings of the works of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). He set about the task of copying 16 of Velasquez’ paintings in the royal collections. As copies they were not successful – Goya could not help but try his own variations on the master’s work – but the careful study he made of the originals had a profound effect on him. Until that point in his career he had inexplicably paid little attention to this greatest of Spanish masters. He undoubtedly knew the work of Velasquez, but never before had he confronted him so directly. Now he perceived in Velasquez’ work a native tradition far better suited to his own temperament than anything in the contemporary styles. Moreover, he saw that Velasquez was a painter who had, a century earlier, practiced what the Enlightenment was now preaching – the close scrutiny of nature, in particular human nature – and that he had a psychological awareness that none of Goya’s contemporaries approached. Goya laboured long and hard on this project. In the process, almost incidentally, he developed the technical skills that were to make him one of the greatest graphic artists the world has ever known. Goya claimed that his teachers were “nature, Rembrandt and Velasquez” [Page 54, The World of Goya, by Richard Schickel, Time-Life Books 1968


Goya's etching of Velazquez' painting of the dwarf Sebastian

This 1779 copy by Goya of the painting Un enano (A Dwarf) of a painting by Velazquez – one of Goya’s acknowledged masters – depicts Sebastian de Morra. At court in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, it was customary for monarchs to “collect” jesters and dwarves for their amusement. Although deprived of the dignity of a chair, Morra looks anything but submissive, and regards the viewer critically.Viewing Goya’s etchings, one undoubtedly misses the colours and contours of the originals. The perspective is profoundly different. And yet, it would be a mistake to view them as “bad copies” or inferior to the original. The basic structure, the great lines, the contrasts between light and shadow are brought to the fore and seen more simply, more directly. Read more about Goya’s copies of Velazques, as well as other re-interpretations in the visual arts HERE.

In the same way, when an orchestral score is “reduced” to a piano version, the bones are laid bare, so to speak. The thematic material is made clearer, as well as its transformations and relationships. The skeleton on which the work is built is revealed.
Orchestral Opera versus Vocal Opera

As I studied the “Liszt Liebestod” I went through various phases of frustration with elements of the material. I knew the vocal line especially well from years of listening to recordings of great sopranos. Occasionally I was surprised and disappointed at some of the singer’s notes that Liszt chose to leave out. It seemed that Liszt was mainly concerned with the new ground Wagner was breaking in the area of harmonic and thematic development, and the transcription reveals a hierarchy of emphasis which simply does not place the voice at the helm. For me, this disregard for certain vocal moments, was a fundamental problem, as it was the great soaring vocal climaxes with which I had fallen in love, and which were the prime motivation for my desire to perform this work. It seemed to me the direct opposite of for example a Puccini opera aria, where very often the only material that exists, is that of the soloist, with the orchestra either doubling the melody or “carrying it over” the breaks in the voice. I am not yet clear as to whether this says more about Wagner the composer or Liszt the transcriber. I have therefore taken the liberty to add a few of Isolde’s sung notes in certain parts. From the syllable missing at the end of the first “lächelt” to the final “Höchste Lust!”, I either discreetly added a few notes, or simply choose to accentuate certain notes within the texture to bring out the overlaying vocal line – even if these were not overtly indicated by Liszt through means of accents or other highlighting instructions.

Liszt’s Liebestod versus Moszkowksi’s Liebestod versus…

The other aspect of the Liszt transcription which is problematic is the use of tremolo effects. It seems to me that one of the prime questions is “How to make the piano sustain sound in the way a group of instruments can”. Liszt came up with a set of answers. Chords are repeated directly, or the melody is held while chords underneath repeat and undulate, giving the impression that the note is sustained. And Liszt’s answers to this question is undoubtedly impressive. His works represented some of the most daringly advanced pianistic effects up to that point in the instrument’s history. And yet, if one is acquainted with the works of later composers such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Debussy or Ravel, to name a few, a certain frustration with some of Liszt’s solutions does creep in. Scriabin used the thinnest bass textures and extended use of the pedal, to create a transparent canvass in which harmonies are sustained over long periods of time. Debussy used mix pedal effects and exploited modal overtones to disguise the piano’s “dying throat”. There are moments in Liszt’s version, where the broken-chords, delayed bass lines and treble-trembles just feel a little pedantic, no matter how revelatory these might have been in 1867.

I explored other versions, such as Willinck and most importantly by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925). A very beautiful transcription, less intent on recreating the overwhelming power of the orchestral version, there are many beautiful “solutions” in this version. Unlike Liszt, Moszkowski was mainly successful as a piano composer. An opera, and a concerto each for violin and piano are virtually his sole contribution to orchestral repertoire. And it shows in the transcription, which is very faithful to the concept of the original, but given to flowery piano figuration. Perhaps an amalgamation of the best of Moszkowski and the best of Liszt would be a good place to start in presenting a successful transcription. For more thoughts on the art of transcription, I refer you to a very useful article by concert pianist Eric Himy.


Richard Wganer

Concert Pianist versus Accompanist

In preparing an interpretation of the Liebestod I have drawn on the various experiences of my career thus far. From my classical background I learnt a fidelity to the printed score. From my Tango and other light music work I learnt to improvise from a “score” that is no more than a mere description of possibilities. Yet, this is not a recreation as much as it is attempting to firstly understand Liszt’s understanding of Wagner, and then to transcend that by using Liszt’s vision as the springboard for my own, while somehow still remaining as faithful to the printed score as possible.

I have also had the misfortune of being repeatedly yelled at by a certain opera conductor  for apparently “leaving out notes” from the score. Eventually it became clear that the orchestral reduction I was using had been arranged in a way to make it playable, rather than being a religiously accurate transcription. As it turns out I was playing what was in the arrangement and not what was in the full score. This however did not appease the said conductor for a moment. In the most humiliating and demeaning language I was instructed to disregard the edition I was using, and simply rework the entire opera from the full score and add all the missing bits! Naturally the payment I was offered as a repetiteur was not going to encourage such enterprise, but it did teach me a healthy suspicion of the printed page – not to mention conductors. From then on I never believed everything I read in the score.

As a repetiteur and accompanist I have worked with singers who have taught me that the true art of playing the piano resides in the “breath” of the instrument: a) how one phrases firstly to assist a singer in their interpretation and need to breathe, and b) how one imitates a singer when performing on any other instrument. Before critical breathing moments a pianist does far more than simply “wait” for the singer to take their breath. There is a subtle “disguising” of the exact breathing moment that has to be set up before hand, and snuck away from afterwards. There are subtle dynamic alterations which prepare an ascent to a higher note or create time and space for a chest note to sound adequately. Far from being a “cheat”, I have learnt to accept this as the true ebb and flow of all music. Therefore, as I play the piano transcription, I attempt to apply the same subtle “disrespect” for the bar-line in order to create as “vocal” a gestallt of the work as possible. This, I think, is not contrary to Liszt’s vision of the Liebestod but is more explicit than indicated in the score by the Abbé Ferencz.

Final words:

As I prepare for my first performance of this work, I still have not answered all the questions and solved all the problems. I experiment each time I practice. My own “arrangements” of the material are occasionally successful and often dreadful, and I come back to the Liszt version with new respect for his solutions. There is ultimately no substitute for hearing a great soprano singing the Liebestod with a full orchestra at the end of five hours of opera. Since I can not sing it myself, playing it on the piano is as close as I can get.

Some useful links:

A complete description and discussion of the Tristan Myth can be found HERE.


Download a Free Score of Moszkowski’s “Liebestod” transcription HERE.

Download a Free Score of Franz List’s “Liebestod” (S.447)  transcription HERE.

Download a Free Score of the transcription of the “Prelude and Liebestod” for Two Pianos by Max Reger HERE.

Recordings of the Wagner-Liszt “Liebestod” (Piano transcription):

Pianist Alfred Brendel performing Liszt’s “Liebestod” transcription can be found HERE.

Pianist Jorge Luis Pratz performing Liszt’s “Liebestod” transcription at the 2007 Miami Piano Festival, can be found HERE.

Pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi performing the Wagner-Liszt “Liebestod” can be found HERE.

Recordings of the original “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”

Birgit Nilsson conducted by Karl Böhm at the Thèâtre Antique d’Orange, July 7, 1973.

Frida Leider with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli in 1931.

Lotte Lehman performing the Liebestod in 1930.

Kirsten Flagstad singing Isolde’s Liebestod at the Met conducted by Erich Leinsdorf in 1941.

Mezzo Soprano Christa Ludwig never recorded the complete role, but her Liebestod recorded in 1963 with Hans Knappertsbusch is superb.

Another superb and regal Isolde that was never seen complete on stage or heard in the studio is the great Jessye Norman conducted here by Herbert von Karajan.

More lightweight Isoldes who nonetheless offer valid interpretative insights include Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Montserrat Caballe.

Of course, the Liebestod is often as much about the conductor and the orchestra as the soprano. Carlos Kleiber recorded a magnificent Tristan und Isolde conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, with Margaret Price singing an exquisitely detailed Isolde.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Tristan und Isolde” drew mixed reviews, but he himself felt that the youthful quality of  Hildgard Behrens combined with a powerful voice which had made her such a popular Salome, also made her the ideal Isolde.

The glorious Strauss soprano Leonie Rysanek appears to have recorded the Liebestod only once.

South African singers who have sung the Liebestod

These include Joyce Barker, whose return to South Africa unfortunately coincided with a downturn in the number of productions of the dramatic soprano repertoire at which she was best. Andrea Catzel recorded a version accompanied by a 1938 recording of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. A famous Isolde from this country was Marita Napier of whom I could not find a sound-clip in this role, but extracts from her Turandot and Götterdämmerung can be found HERE. Her life and career is also the topic of an M MUS dissertation by Eridine Roux.

Tristano e Isotta: Translation into other languages

Maria Callas performed very little Wagner, and only ever sang his roles in Italian. She claims to have felt little affinity for Wagner, although her Kundry sizzles with intensity. Her Walküre Brünnhilde (learnt and performed in a week after her debut in Bellini’s Il Pirata) caused a sensation. Her 1949 RAI radio Recording included the Liebestod, which she was performing in Venice at the time. Wonderful legato singing and a gleaming tone add a unique view of Isolde. Her 1957 Athens Recital conducted by Antonino Votto reveals a voice intensely responsive to the nuances of the text and is possibly an even greater interpretation than her earlier radio broadcast.

I do not know of any performances of this opera in other languages.

Other Wagner transcriptions:

German composer Franz Waxman (1906-1967), best known for his film scores, took an extract from his 1946 film Humoresque based on love motifs from Tristan und Isolde, turning it into the Tristan and Isolde Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra. A prominent obbligato piano adds to the lushness of this ultimately Hoolywoodified Wagner.

Download the FREE SHEET MUSIC of the Overture to Tannhäuser HERE.

Listen to a 1926 recording of the Overture to Tannhäuser played by Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) (Incidentally, Cortot conducted the first Paris performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung)

Overture to Tannhäuser, is played here by Jorge Bolet in a live Carnegie Hall recital in 1974.

Here, the Overture to Tannhäuser is performed by Russian-born Benno Moiseiwitsch. He was a pupil of Wagner’s and Liszt’s contemporary, Theodor Leschetizky.

Too much of a good thing?

And if one pianist is not enough for you, here you can hear the Overture to Tannhäuser played by SIXTEEN PIANOS in an arrangement by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

From the Verbier Festival comes this transcription of the “Ride of the Valkyries” for EIGHT PIANOS

Information on the Bayeuth Scholarship Programme is available HERE.

amores IMG_5549

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Following our successful trip to Mozambique presenting Portuguese language music, Filipa and I have extended the Villa-Lobos portion of the programme to include a broad spectrum of Latin American gems. Amongst music from Cuba, Brazil and Argentina, the strains of Spain and Portugal are weaved in, reflecting not only their erstwhile colonial power and influence, but also the roots of the music from Latin America.

Our programme includes the famous and very popular “La Partida” (The Farewell) by Marcello Alvarez (1833?-1898). This beautiful song shows off the dramatic and vocal range of a singer and pianist, and makes an excellent recital-piece that has been recorded and performed by many great singers of the past and present. Alvarez is known for the composition of almost 100 songs and an unpublished opera “Margarita”. He also composed an orchestral work “Obertura Capricho” (Keith Johnson – All Music Guide)

The text by Spanish poet, playwright and journalist Eusebio Blasco Soler (1844 – 1903) tells of a person leaving their homeland with a heart full of sadness and even bitterness.

La Partida (The Farewell) – Eusebio Blasco Soler

Spanish Text:

Sierras de Granada, montes de Aragón,
campos de mi patria,
para siempre adios

De la patria los últimos ecos,
resonando en mi pecho estarán
y mis ojos llorando pesares
sus dolores, ¡ay! sus dolores
al mundo dirán.

Mensajeros, ¡ay! mensajeros
de un pecho traidor. ¡Ah!

Cuando a tus playas vuelva suelo adorado
las aguas del olvido me habrán curado
y si así no sucede ¡triste de mí! ¡triste de mí!

A la patria que dejo vendré a morir.

Sierras de Granada, montes de Aragón,
campos de mi patria, para siempre adiós,
adiós, para siempre adios!

La Partida (The Farewell)

Eusebio Blasco Soler – Free English translation by Albert Combrink:

Mountain ranges of Granada, mounts of Aragon, fields of my mother country, goodbye for ever.

The final echoes resonating in my chest, will be of mother country and my eyes will be crying with grief, ay! And will speak its pains to the world.

Messengers, ay! Messengers, ay, of a traitorous heart. Ah!

When to the beaches of your adored ground, I return, the waters of forgetfulness will have cured me of my grief. And if it has not, woe is me! Woe is me!

To the mother country that I leave, I will return to die.

Mountain ranges of Granada, mounts of Aragon, fields of my mother country, for always, goodbye!

Musical Style

The free lyricism and easy melodiousness of the song resembles the style of Italian Neapolitan Songs. The passion of the poet is reflected in the flamenco style ornaments of the vocal line. The work also reflects the omnipresence of the guitar in the music of Spain and Latin America. Arpeggiated figures remind of a strummed guitar. When built into an extended song such as this one feels that it would not be out of place as an aria in a Zarzuela. Zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that includes spoken dialogue and sung scenes (similar to musicals or German Operetta). Music in a Zarzuela can include dance, popular or operatic songs. There are two main forms of Zarzuela: the Baroque Zarzuela (c.1600-1750) and the Romantic Zarzuela (c.1850-1950). Zarzuela spread to the Spanish colonies and many Hispanic countries such as Cuba, developed their own traditions, extending the range and scope of this artform. While I found no affirmative documentation it is not far fetched to assume that Alvarez would have encountered Zarzuelas in Brazil or on travels to Spain, which many musicians from Brazil did in the 19th century.

Useful links and recorded material

An orchestrated version sung in 1959 by Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999). The last two years of Kraus’s life were darkened by the death of his wife in 1997, which affected him so deeply that he stopped performing for eight months. A proud and strong-willed man, he eventually returned to the stage and to teaching, making the comment: “I don’t have the will for singing but I must do it, because, in a sense, it is a sign that I have overcome the tragedy. Singing is a form of admitting that I’m alive.” Something of that will to live can be heard in his performance of this song.

An orchestrated version sung by Peruvian tenor Luigi Alva(1927- ). Alva was the foremost tenore leggiero of the post World War II years. He was known for his purity of tone, elegant phrasing and spotless diction. The clarity and precision he brought to Mozart and Rossini serves him well here in the lyrical sections of this song, sung with touching expression.

Another famous tenor to have recorded “La Partida” is Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) He brings a real dramatic flair and his powerful voice to this song creating a superb rendition. A very exciting discovery while researching this song was finding FREE DOWNLOADS of Caruso recordings of copyright-free material in the public domain. But for those who wish to own the artefact, there are recorded CD versions available by Rosa Ponselle and Caruso.

The operatic possibilities of “La Partida” are explored in this version by Amelita Galli-Curci on what appears to be her first ever recording (30 October 1916). She not only adds a high D at the end, but also what sounds like a pair of Castanets. One wonders if the great lady herself played them, or if the task was left to the percussion department… It was not uncommon for singers such as Maria Malibran to play Castanets on stage (in Carmen for example or in song recitals) or even accompany themselves on the guitar (Victoria de los Angeles). Filipa van Eck however will not be playing any of these at our performance of “Amores, Amores, a Latin Night of Song” on 16 August at Villa Pascal, being satisfied with myself on the piano, accompanying the songs as well as performing solo instrumental repertoire.

Other items on the programme include Falla’s “Seite Canciones Populares Espanolas”, Claudio Santoro’s “Acalanto al Rose”, “La muerte del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla as well as Villa-Lobos songs and piano works.


amores IMG_5549

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos

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Ciclo Brasilero is one of Villa-Lobos’ most important contributions to the piano literature. It therefore was a natural choice for inclusion a concert honouring the 50th Anniversary of the death of Heitor Villa-Lobos which dazzling soprano Filipa von Eck and I will be giving in Maputho (Mozambique) on 17 July 2009.

One often reads about the Brazilian rhyhms, Indian folk melodies and other “exotic” elements in his music. It would however be to underestimate the composer to view him as a quaint colourist. His works reflect depth of study and an immersion in contemporary compositional techniques. That said, it has been of immense value for me as a performer, to encounter the actual music that inspired the composer. Some of the traditional dances have given me insight into the sound-world which I had only glimpsed before. This experience was similar to the discovery of the music of Hungarian folk musicians, which transformed the way I performed the music of Bela Bartok. My experience of performing other Latin-American music, such as that of Piazzolla and Gardel, have also given me a certain rhythmic freedom I might not have had in the past. While the piano music is strictly notated, an air of improvisation can be felt in his works, and I think the element of movement, of the dance, is central to much of his music.

Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) wrote a vast amount of music, across a very broad range of genres. A list of his works reveals an enormous body of piano music. His complete piano music easily covers 7 or 8 CD’s – much more than music by other “piano-specialists” such as, for example, Godowsky, Scriabin or Medtner. Given such a large output, it is inevitable that some works will be weaker than others, but I believe that it is only with regular performance of the entire oeuvre that the strongest works will emerge.

Some works are already well-known. Three collections of short pieces called  “Prole do Bebê”  (1916, 1918 and 1921) – each devoted to a different aspect of a child’s imagination – have established themselves in recital programmes and as prescribed literature for examinations and competitions. There are the Choros 1, 2 and 5, and the 4th Bachianas Brasileiras, some original and some piano arrangements of orchestral works. Piano transcriptions of some of his popular Guitar works such as the preludes exist, but I have not seen the sheet music available.

Some works are so difficult as to put them out of reach of most pianists, and are consequently not as well-known as they deserve to be. One of these is the massive Rudepoema (1921-1926) – a vast 23 minute summation of the composer’s pianistic style. The work’s name derives form a pun by the composer on the name of Arthur Rubinstein – nicknamed “Rudi” and the Portuguese adjective for “Rude”, “Savage” or “Rough”. One can readily hear, in the composer’s words, the “exuberance of storms in the virgin forests of Brazil”. A few recordings exist, but to my mind, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s version is the greatest. I was lucky enough to find Youtube clips where you can follow the score while you listen to his performance. The excellence of this interpretation has however cured me of all desire to even attempt this piece.

Hamelin's CD of Villa-Lobos

Hamelin's CD of Villa-Lobos

Hamelin’s version of “Rudepoema” – Part 1

Hamelin’s version of “Rudepoema” – Part 2

However, there is plenty of music left in his output that I would tackle. In Mozambique I will also be playing Villa-Lobos’ “Capricho Op.49”, in what appears to be a transcription by the composer of a work originally for Piano and Cello. The only recording of it I could track down was by cellist Rebecca Rust. A charming salon-work, it is not particularly “Brazilian” in style, but in fact has the feel of a Parisian waltz.

Ciclo Brasileiro is very popular as well. It’s unmistakeable Brazilian Folk-flavour is much deeper than mere exoticism. They are fun to play and repay the hard-work as audiences respond to their brilliance and virtuosity as well as the fresh colours and harmonies. It is awash in the romanticism apparent in his works of the 1930’s.

The “Brazilian Cycle” is made up of four movements:

  1. Plantio do caboclo (The Peasant’s sowing)
  2. Impressoes seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician)
  3. Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Desert)
  4. Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian)

1. Plantio do caboclo (The Peasant’s sowing)

Played here by Paulo Brasil the hymn-like melody is truly hypnotic. The ostinato pattern in the right hand is typical of much of the composer’s writing, but I personally would have preferred a more tender quai-impressionistic approach in the modulatory middle section. The closing is magically handled.

2. Impressoes seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician)

This beautiful waltz is played magnificently by Clelia Iruzun, one of my favourite Villa-Lobos interpreters. It combines a large romantic pianistic idiom with a sense of improvisation. I have simply fallen in love with this piece and it needs to be heard more often in concerts.

3. Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Forrest)

This virtuosic and entertaining showpiece conjures up festive hustle and bustle in a Toccata style that reminds perhaps of Ginastera. Sonia Rubinsky recorded the complete works of Villa-Lobos, and her version of this piece is impressive. Despite the percussive effects of the alternating chords, the work needs a balance with more lush textures. I feel that Alfred Heller’s version, for all its strengths, is too dry for my liking. Clelia Iruzun’s performance is very engaging and exciting, and she manages the return to the opening material though careful use of the third pedal and a big ritardando that is not in the score, however it totally convinces me. Her playing in the 5/4 middle section is impassioned, revealing great depths of emotion and drama. Great playing.

CD notes in the Rubinsky Complete Edition (Vol.3) states that this piece is based on the Brazilian traditional dance, the “Batuque”. From a version of a Batuque that I could find that convinces as authentic, it appears that the rhythm Villa-Lobos uses is an accurate transcription. The ritual element is enhanced by repeated cycles and melody is secondary to the importance of the alternating percussive patterns. Another version of a Batuque focuses attention on the percussionists. The vocal interpolations from the drummers themselves have given my fresh inspiration for interpretting this piece as more than just something flashy to impress the audience.

4. Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian)

Described by Villa-Lobos as his “musical portrait” – a reference to himself as a “White Indian” – this piece seems to be more deliberately “exotic” than the others in the series. Some have commented that the “white” in the title refers to the white notes of the piano that seem to dominate in the writing, or that Villa-Lobos “encountered an Indian in the Brazilian forest who constantly danced and died”, that inspired the piece. Obviously designed as a showpiece, the most significant technical difficulty other than the alternating hand movements is to bring out the melody within the large chords. Sonia Rubinsky gives an impressive performance, but perhaps this work is meant to impress rather than move the listener. Gustavo Romero gives a characteristically flashy performance that is impressive for its attention to details such as dynamic variations although it is difficult to define a concept of traditional phrasing in this work.

A big difficulty is finding scores of Latin American composers in South Africa. Here’s hoping that libraries will make use of this 50 year anniversary to stock up.

A sizeable collection of Villa-Lobos piano music is available at 166 pages. Published by Amsco Publications (MS.AM41732).ISBN 0825640628

It contains the following works:

Alma Brasileira – Choros No. 5
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 1. Preludio
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 2. Coral
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 3. Aria
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 – 4. Dansa
Caixinha De Musica Quebrada
Carnaval Das Criancas Brasileiras – 1. A Manha Da Pierrette
Carnaval Das Criancas Brasileiras – 2. O Chicote Do Diabinho
Ciclo Brasileiro – 1. Plantio Do Caboclo
Ciclo Brasileiro – 2. Impressoes Seresteiras
Ciclo Brasileiro – 3. Festa No Sertao
Ciclo Brasileiro – 4. Dansa Do Indio Branco
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 1. Acordei De Madrugada
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 2. A Mare Encheu
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 3. A Roseira
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 4. Manquinha
Guia Pratico – Album 1 – 5. Na Corda Da Viola
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 1. O Limao
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 2. Carambola
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 3. Pobre Cega
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 4. Pai Francisco
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 5. Xo Passarinho!
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 6. Sinh’ Aninha
Guia Pratico – Album 8 – 7. Vestidinho Branco
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 1. Laranjeira Pequenina
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 2. Pombinha, Rolinha
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 3. O Cir
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 4. A Velha Que Tinha Nove Filhas
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 5. Contante
Guia Pratico – Album 9 – 6. O Castelo
Poema Singleo
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 1. Moreninha
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 2. Mulatinha
Prole Do Bebe No. 1 – 3. O Polichinelo
Simples Coletanea – 1. Valsa Mistica
Simples Coletanea – 2. Em Um Berco Encantado
Simples Coletanea – 3. Rhodante
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 1. Idilio Na Rede
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 2. Uma Camponeza Cantadeira
Suite Floral – Op. 97 – 3. Alegria Na Horta

An interesting site by Leonor Lains, with biographical details, phots and quotes can be found HERE.