Soprano Filipa Van Eck

Soprano Filipa Van Eck

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

On Friday 17 July 2009 Filipa Van Eck and myself will be performing a concert in tribute to the 50th anniversary of the death of Heitor Villa-Lobos, and also in celebration of the 13th anniversary of the CPLP, or Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa (Community of Portuguese speaking Countries),  a type of Portuguese commonwealth that includes all Portuguese speaking countries such as Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Brazil etc. The concert will be held at the University in Maputo. The concert will also feature solo piano works by Villa-Lobos.

” O vosso canto vem do fundo do Sertao, como uma brisa amolecendo o coracao” – “Your songs come from the depths of the forest, like a breeze softening  my heart.” These words by Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira – speaking of a beloved  to a bird in the forest – could apply to Villa-Lobos. His vocal music has not been adequately explored in recital or on recordings,. Sheet Music is not readily available. Therefore putting together a selection of songs is not an easy task. But there is much of value and beauty to explore.

We will, of course, be performing the composer’s signature-work for voice, the Bachianas Brasileiras #5. Filipa will be singing the complete work, the Canitlena as well as the 2nd movement – added in 1945 – Dansa (Martelo) to the text by Manuel Bandeira.

“Melodia Sentimental” was an obvious choice, but we could not find the Sheet Music in time. I include recorded materials of it here simply because I think it is a wonderful piece that I will perform as soon as get a copy of the music. This work has become so popular that some find it difficult to decide if it is a Folk Song that became classical or if it’s a classical song that has become so popular as to have entered the folk tradition. As is typical with the music of this composer, the music can sustain a variety of different performance styles. It has been arranged for classical ensembles, and performed by popular and classical singers alike. I personally adore this clip of Maria Bethania listening to and singing along to her own recording of  “Melodia Sentimental” .

Narrowing the gap between classical and popular

In a recent issue of the Rio de Janeiro Musician’s Union (SindMusi) newsletter, Musical, the pianist, arranger and composer Cláudio Dauelsberg was interviewed about the release of two new CD’s in two very different styles, Ventos do Norte (North Winds – MPB) and Bach, recorded with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

He says, “More and more we are seeing the barrier breaking down between popular and classical… Each (of these) areas has a lot to offer to the other and it’s really cool for us to allow that encounter. But it’s a challenge to dive in with intensity and profundity in the two areas.”

Brazilian music is founded upon the syncretism of European, African and Indigenous Amerindian musical traditions which all contribute to its uniqueness. In The Brazilian Sound, Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha provide some additional insights (1998):

“Most Brazilian music shares three outstanding qualities. It has an intense lyricism tied to its Portuguese heritage that often makes for beautiful, highly expressive melodies, enhanced by the fact that Portuguese is one of the most musical tongues on earth and no small gift to the ballad singer. Second, a high level of poetry is present in the lyrics of much Brazilian popular music. And last, vibrant Afro-Brazilian rhythms energize most Brazilian songs, from samba to baião.”

These elements are to be fund in abundance in the songs Filipa Van Eck will be performing in Mozambique:

Cancao do Poeta do Seculo XVIII (Song of a poet of the 18th Century)

Cancao do Poeta do Seculo XVIII (sung here in a clip by Teresa Berganza with Juan Antonio Alvarez Parejo on piano in 1984) is a beautiful song that walks the trapeze between art-song and popular ballad – like so many of this composer’s works. A gentle candombe rhythm introduces a yearning melody that seems to reflect the text by Alfredo Ferreira perfectly. The poet dreams of walking in the moonlight with his beloved. The moon is a symbol of love and hope, but alas, it is also out of reach.

Evocação (Evocation)

“Evocação” – the 7th song in the series “Modinhas e Canções” – is filled with deep feeling and longing. It is a powerful song in which the poet is delirious with love. “I live to cry my love for you”, the poet says, and is enfolded in a starlit dream of ecstasy. Here is a version sung by tenor Daniel Inamorato. This is a very serious and “classical” interpretation, which I enjoy, but I do think some more expressive freedom would add to the passion of the song. The lilting 6/8 opening is almost Neapolitan in it’s simplicity, but the modulation to the minor in the slow section is most affecting, with the climax of the song reaching almost suicidal passion.

Nesta Rua (This Street)

This appears to be a Villa-Lobos arrangement of a traditional melody arranged by Villa-Lobos, in fact, more than once. It appears as the 11th piece in the piano cycle Cirandinhas (1925) and again in the Cirandas of 1926. The piano arrangements are powerful virtuoso works, but their dramatic style appears not to fit the lyrics of the poem. The quasi-Indian percussive piano effects open the piano arrangements are totally absent in the vocal arrangement. Kiki Hamman traces the roots of this song to a Brazilian “cantiga” or lullaby. If Villa-Lobos can not stake claim to the haunting melody, he certainly gets the credit for a magnificent arrangement. Subtle polyrhythms and swaying triplets make performing this work an absolute pleasure. Again, it is a work that has popular undertones, and unfortunately gets less than satisfactory performances such as this version with Sandy Leah in which more than just the intonation is suspect.

Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos

The 2nd song form the group “Modinhas e Canções” (to a text by Triato Correa), reveals Villa-Lobos’ popular folk-inflected side. However it is a bit perplexing as a musical response to the text. The song is written in an up-beat Allegretto Tango rhythm, but the text by Triato Correa is a sad an desperate cry for a departed lover. “Everything in me is black and sad, Oh! this tremendous, tremendous punishment.” But the song is not black nor sad! This version with tenor Polane Brandão reveals the technical difficulty of the song, as well as one of a fundamental weakness in much of Villa-Lobos’ vocal writing: the piano doubles the voice melody throughout. This creates a problem with the balance as well as highlighting any intonation difficulties that there might be. In addition it limits the singer’s rhythmic freedom, which I consider vital to creating a folk-inspired quasi-Neapolitan song. Orchestrated versions do exist, but I am not sure if these are by Villa-Lobos. Bidu Sayao recorded two versions, and her lyricim is immediately apparent. Her clear voice and easy high notes still make her an ideal interpreter from a stylistic point of view:

“Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos” sung by Bidu Sayao (1)

“Lundú Da Marqueza De Santos” sung by Bidu Sayao (2)

Some recordings of Villa-Lobos’ vocal music and other useful links:

“Canção do Amor” and “Melodia Sentimental” from Villa-Lobos’ symphonic poem “Floresta do Amazonas” sung by Bidu Sayo in 1959. Villa-Lobos convinced Sayao to come out of retirement to record this work, composed with her voice in mind. The lyrics are given as well.

Cathy Berberian sings Xango The text has no particular meaning and is an anomatopaeic description of Amerindian drumming – “Xangô! Ôlê gondilê ôlálá… Gon gon gon gondilá! Xangô! Ôlé gondilé ôlêlê Gon gon gon gondilê!”

Traditional recreation of Xango: Xango, god of fire and thunder from the Afro Brazilian tradition of Candomble´. From the CD, “Sacred Songs and Chants of Candomble”

“Floresta” sung by Bidu Sayao

The “Birdsong” from “Amazon” sung by Bidu Sayao

Brazilian Popular Music: A Bird of a Thousand Voices

Texts and translations of a selection of Villa-Lobos’ vocal works

A CD of Latin American Songs with Marina Tafur (Soprano) and Nigel Foster (Piano)

“Canción del marinero” sung by Alfredo Kraus

Balduína de Oliveira (Bidu) Sayão’s obituary and career summary

An appreciation of Bidu Sayao’s career

Filipa Van Eck’s Biography

Filipa van Eck (23) has completed her Bmus Western Classical Performance at UCT and has been training her voice with Sarita Stern since 2004. Filipa has won various prizes for singing at school, and completed her UNISA exams with distinctions. At UCT she has managed to be placed on the Dean’s Merit list for every year of study, and was the Class Medalist for 2004.

Filipa has sung in various chamber music concerts, her repertoire includes The Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, L’amero by Mozart and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen by Schubert; and was invited to perform as a soloist in Vivaldi’s Gloria with the Sotonga String Quartet in Napier; and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater for Barry Smith and the Rupert Foundation for Music in March 2008.

Filipa has also performed around Cape Town for The Nine Club, Friends of Cape Town Opera, The Fishoek Music Society; and in Pretoria at the Portuguese Embassy in commemoration of the end of the Portuguese presidency of the European Union. She was chosen to perform a solo recital for Portuguese national day held at the Centre of the Book in 2007, and performed in Johannesburg with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Cock in a concert organized by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Filipa was nominated as a finalist in the 2007 and 2008 SCHOCK Foundation for Singing Competition, and the 2008 SCHOCK Chamber Music Competition held at the Baxter concert hall.

She will be performing in a concert version of Dido and Aeneas for Barry Smith in May, appearing as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in June, and in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen with the UCT Opera School and Cape Town Opera.

She is currently completing her Masters in Music Performance at UCT.

Bachianas #5 will be performed in "Moonlight Serenade" and is recorded by Louise Howlett on her latest CD

Bachianas #5 will be performed in "Moonlight Serenade" and is recorded by Louise Howlett on her latest CD

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

Louise Howlett and I will be performing the Bachianas Brasileiras #5 by Villa-Lobos in our new “Moonlight Serenade” programme. We have recently recorded this for release on our upcoming CD and spent a very intense few hours in the studio experimenting with different performing styles and “versions”. I am also preparing a performance of this work with Filipa von Eck for a concert in Mozambique which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Villa-Lobos’s death. The work is so popular and well-known that I thought performing it would be relatively straight-forward. I knew it so well. Or at least, I thought I did.

Brazilian Heitor-Villa Lobos (1887-1959) is one of the most significant Latin Composers to date. He wrote works in many different styles: orchestral, instrumental, small chamber ensembles, songs and more. His music is influenced by Brazilian folk music, but he is  considered a composer of classical music. A set of 9 Bachianas Brasileiras aim to combine his love for the music of his country with homage to the work of J.S. Bach. Villa-Lobos is said to have found analogies between Bach’s works and the traditional music of Brazil.

Originally written for soprano and eight-part cello ensemble, the “Bachiana #5” is very often performed incomplete. The first section, the Aria (Cantilena) composed in 1938, is often performed on its own. Its hauntingly beautiful melody has made it extremely popular and the second part, Dança (Martelo) added in 1945 is often omitted. The Aria opens with pizzicato cellos, their plucking sounds reminiscent of a large, resonant guitar. The voice enters with a melody so exquisite and haunting that it stays with you forever. And no matter where you hear it, the reaction to its beauty is instant.

Its shape is simple: A long mellifluous melody flanks a more dramatic middle section, creating an A-B-A structure similar to a Braoque “Da Capo aria” that Bach might have written. If one accepts that melody is the essence of music, and that the essence of melody is song, then one can easily see the connection between the worlds of J.S. Bach and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Melody was always apparent in the works of Bach, and not a strict or rigid type of melody, but a fluid, rhapsodic and improvisatory kind – much like many types of folksong. And in the works of both composers, the feeling of the dance is never far away. The text to the middle section was written by Ruth Valadares Correa, and is a beautiful evocation of the beauty of the moon – therefore it was an obvious choice for our “Moonlight Serenade”. But the largest part of this work has no text. The singer just sings an exquisite melody without words, a vocalise to move the listener to their core.

The difficulties with performing this work appear when you try to do it without the orchestra of cellos. Most piano versions of music originally written for orchestra, are designed to make the music “performable” without an actual orchestra. Many tricks are used by editors to imitate the sounds one would expect to hear. Tremolos, runs up and down the piano to create washes of sound, or thundering chords held in the pedal, all in an attempt to delude the listener into forgetting that the eighty-piece orchestra has been replaced by ten fingers. The problem is that a piano creates vastly different sounds to seven plucking cellos.

Villa-Lobos himself created a piano version in 1948,  mainly to satisfy his publishers, who needed something they could sell easily. The work was an instant popular success and singers wanted to learn and perform it, but weren’t always in a position to provide the cello orchestra. I have searched high and low for a recording of this version, but the lack of recordings of this version bears out my impression that this was not a version for serious performance, but rather a transcription to assist a singer in learning it. Sensible and sturdy chords give no hint of the flutter of butterfly wings created by the cellos.

Villa-Lobos had also worked extensively with guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) who is considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement by most modern scholars. As Segovia traveled the world, he and the guitar became more and more popular. Composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos began to compose original pieces specifically for the guitar. With their dark and melancholy mixture of dissonance and cello-like phrasing, Villa-Lobos’ compositions in particular, seem to fit the guitar perfectly. Segovia transcribed many of other composers’ works for the guitar, including a transcription of the “Bachianas #5” itself a re-working of Villa-Lobos’ 1947 guitar version.

Guitar arrangement by Villa-Lobos which forms the basis for transcriptions by Segovia and myself

Guitar arrangement by Villa-Lobos which forms the basis for transcriptions by Segovia and myself

This was the version I originally selected for my own performances on the piano. The thinned-out texture of the guitar version translated to the piano a lot better than I had expected. Louise and I performed this version, but the evolution was not yet complete. I would have to perform this work with other sopranos in other contexts, so I needed to adapt this into a performance version with which I felt comfortable. This guitar-version by Segovia was also “incomplete” in certain respects, not least because some of the solo cello lines were left out, or in some cases given to the soprano to sing.  This was an arrangement of an arrangement.

When Louise and I went into the studio, we recorded this adaptation at the original pitch, and it sounded very good. But we wanted to experiment further, especially since we had the advantage of a microphone and a superb sound-technician Duncan MacKay. We transposed it down into a lower key and tried again. The result was something original, which blended in with the other material on the CD.  Louise didn’t have to project so much to get her voice up into the high notes of the soprano range, and this created an ease of vocal production that allowed colouration that would not normally be possible. She could sing a lot softer, making the performance a lot more intimate than we had experienced before in our concerts and making it less “operatic” than most versions. This is in fact an appropriate style, since the work is written in the style of a “modinha” a sentimental love song “of uncertain origins” that evolved in Brazil and Portugal. It was a serenade of sung in the streets to guitar accompaniment, and the origins of the work are thus definitely not operatic.

Still, we can’t perform it in this intimate way in an acoustic concert. So as we come up to a series of very different performance settings, the final version has yet to emerge. At Villa Pascal’s in Durbanville, there will be a microphone for Louise, but which key will we use? The lower one that we discovered in the studio, which reveals the intimate, romantic side of her voice? Or the higher pitch at which it was written, exploiting the more operatic side of her voice? We are not yet sure.

When it comes to a purist approach to this work, classical music lovers are in difficult territory. It is true that the only “correct” version of this work is with the original cello orchestra. But the very fact that Villa-Lobos made, encouraged and sanctioned arrangements of his own works, makes it difficult to be dogmatic on this issue. A glance around at available recordings is enlightening: Click here to listen to a variety of different arrangements of “Bachianas #5” . The one omission from this list is the arrangement by Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink, but once our CD is released, we can rectify that…

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

There are many different arrangements of the Bachianas Braisleiras in print and in recorded media. I here offer a few versions in different styles, genres and voice-types.

Bidu Sayão -The first soprano to record Villa-Lobos’s large-scale “Symphony Cantata” “Amazon”. Performed in the presence of the composer, her performances are regarded as authentic as one can claim. We also have her to thank for the very existence of the vocal version of the work. Villa-Lobos originally conceived the melodic line for a violin, and it was Mz. Sayão who suggested the Vocalise concept. She did not however sing the World Premiere. The lyricist of the Aria (Cantilena) Ruth Valadares Corrêa gave the first performance in 1938.

Barbara Hendricks – A modern recording of a beautiful soprano rendition with the original orchestration.

Galina Vishnevskaya (Original Orchestration with Mstislav Rostropovich playing the solo cello) – It might seem alarming that the dedicatee Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and performer of Russian works such as Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” would tackle this work, and yet it is deeply moving in its own right. The famous “Slavic Wobble” is absent, and the white vibrato-less sound for which her Tosca and Aida were criticised, seems to suit the ethereal cantilena. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote “Listening to the singing” in 1961 after hearing this performance. Villa-Lobos himself played the cello, and it says something of the power of this piece that a great solo cellist such as Rostropovich would join a “cello-choir”.

Camile van Hulsen Organ transcription – A version which exploits the sustaining qualities of the organ.

SEBA – I think this version performed by a Crossover Jazz Ensemble would be more interesting if the performance was not so compromised.

Trio Arrangement for Soprano, Piano and Cello which attempts to combine the prominent elements of the Piano Arrangement with the textured movement of the cello part, reduced to one lone cello. There are successful elements at work here, but it is almost impossible to remain consistent throughout the work as the staccato passages are passed between the instruments.

Eva Marton and the New York Harp Ensemble – Mz Marton’s unsuitability to the vocal line apart, I felt the harps either too resonantly recorded or just not dry enough to capture the guitar-like texture. A useful experiment and a surprising failure.

Elena Garancia (Reorchestrated) – A Mezzo-soprano singing the soprano line magnificently. Yet while she sings in the traditional “operatic” voice, the accompaniment has been fleshed out. Perhaps as there is a certain discomfort in the original version, given that we are not used to listening to an orchestra made up of only baritonal cellos? A lovely version, but it definitely can not be called “authentic”. Is that a problem? Let the listener decide.

Victoria de los Angeles – The doyenne of Spanish singers is for many the ideal interpreter of this work. I personally find the cellist’s overindulgent rubatos too much to handle.

Machaca Ensemble (re-orchestrated with percussion) – An interesting orchestration including Xylopohone. An experiment that perhaps is not yet complete. The use of percussion can be further explored.

Martin Ostertag and Boris Björn Bagger both teach at the University of Music Karlsruhe and made an interesting version for Guitar and Cello only with the Cello replacing the voice. A lovely arrangement perhaps, but a rather dry-eyed performance. Sheetmusic available at http://www.edition49.de

An audio clip is available on Amazon by Miles Davis protégé Wayne Shorter – as authentic and heartfelt a response to this work as one can hope to hear. Reinvented, original and beautiful.

Reinvented but much more baffling is a version by Jorge Aragao, a Samba artist who started performing in the 1970s. The carnival feel seems very far removed from the heartfelt cantilena of the “moon rising over the infinite beauty of transparent clouds”

John Williams & Nana Mouskouri – This rather baffling rendition has divided opinion for almost 40 years. Nana Mouskouri had an instantly recognisable voice ideally suited for folk music, aunique personal style which she applied to everything that she sang. She transposes the high notes down, making it a very strange listening experience. Yet it was hugely popular in its time and broadcast on BBC4.

Joan Baez – A folk singer with a voice similar to Nana Mouskouri, but a vastly more successful performance in its original orchestration. Even when it was first recorded, critics had little idea what to make of this version. It was not classical, it was not folk. And it deffinitely was not bad. No it is not “classical”. Some might say, “Thank God”.

Frida Boccara turns in a surprisingly successful version where the voice does not take centre-stage but rather melds with the cellos, at some points indistinct enough that it almost becomes one of the instruments of the orchestra.

Lance Bryant’s version is for SAXOPHONE and String Quartet – Perhaps with a world-class saxophonist this version has potential.

Bachianas goes Café del Mar: The Operatica rethink has left me undecided. New art or travesty?

And just when you think you have heard it all – I am afraid to comment on this choral version. Perhaps a successful choral version such as the “translation” of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” into a choral “Agnus Dei” still waits to happen for this work.

I include a version for Jazz Vibraphone and Harpsichord mainly for the dubious sake of completianism.

I leave the worst for last. Undoubtedly an amateur, Hayley Westenra here reveals all the virtues  and mysteries of her non-art. Breathing in the middle of phrases is the least of her flaws. An attempt at pretty singing simply falls flat. It is as meaningless a performance as one could have the misfortune to encounter. ANd Mz Westenra commits the ultimate Bachianas Crime: to bore the listener.

Useful links

A  list of recordings of works by Villa-Lobos currently in the catalogue

A list of scores and some archive recordings

Text and translation

Some published arrangements

The Aria (Cantilena) has also been arranged for:

Voice and Guitar as performed by Andrés Segovia

Voice and piano by Burle Marx

Concert Band by W. Herbert

Organ solo by Camil Van Hulse

Flute and Piano by James Galway

Viola and piano by William Primrose

Clarinet Choir by John Krance

Alto sax solo and sax quartet accompaniment by Frank Bongiorno

Solo Soprano Sax (C Instrument), 2 Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Bass Sax all published by AMP (Hal Leonard)

(http://www.mola-inc.org/Bachianas.htm)