Villa-Lobos: Chamber Music

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For its third album on Naxos, the chamber ensemble Mobius has picked a handful of works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil's most colorful and celebrated composer. Considering that the label released a set of the complete Bachianas Brasilieras in 2005, and several other Villa-Lobos titles before it, it's reasonable to say that a revival of the composer's work is well underway at Naxos with this 2006 release. But because Villa-Lobos was incredibly prolific and always capable of producing lightweight fare, there is always a risk that such a revival will yield a large amount of innocuous, if not mediocre, music. While Mobius has naturally chosen pieces to match its instrumentation of flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp, it's an uneven assortment, and it's hard to say that any of these works should be taken as seriously as Villa-Lobos' major efforts, such as his 17 string quartets, which deserve much greater exposure. Perhaps the most enjoyable for its vivid sonorities and lively melodies is the Quintette instrumental (1957), which is also the most substantial in its harmonic textures and contrapuntal ideas. Aside from this engaging ensemble piece, the rest of the program consists of music for two performers: Duo for violin and viola (1946), The Jet Whistle for flute and cello (1950), Song of the Black Swan for violin and harp (1917), and a transcription by flutist Lorna McGhee and harpist Alison Nicholls of Five Songs (1926-1950). This balanced selection gives everyone in the group fair representation, and allows the listener to examine Villa-Lobos' development over a rather wide time span. However, the level of musical interest is not consistently high, and there are moments in each piece when Villa-Lobos' ingenuity seems to flag. Listen to this album attentively, if you must, but it's easier to take as background music, since its charming tunes and bright timbres carry it more convincingly than any other features. Naxos' sound is absolutely clear and has a presence that is almost palpable.

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