First Listen: Isaac Karabtchevsky Conducts Villa-Lobos
The year was 1982, I believe, when I first encountered the Brazilian conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky. He had come to guest conduct the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City Philharmonic), of which I was a member. I have fond memories of the experience, especially the opening number of the concert, the “Overture to Der Freischutz” by Carl Maria von Weber. The orchestra loved playing for him and gave him terrific performances. I recall going out afterward with a group of musicians and Maestro Karabtchevsky, for drinks. Obviously, there was the desire to socialize with him, but we also wanted to find out if there were any openings for us in his orchestra in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, the answer was no. I recall running into Maestro Karabtchevsky on one other occasion. He came to guest conduct the Sinfonica Nacional in Mexico City. He was extremely popular with those musicians, too, and gave a fine concert.
Since then, he pretty much fell off my radar screen. I would think about him now and then, of what a pleasure it had been working for him, but his name was not one which came up on recordings or in the various hi-fi magazines I would read with regularity.
But that has all changed of late. The Naxos record label is now two discs deep into a projected set of the complete symphonies by Heitor Villa-Lobos. So far, it has been Karabtchevsky, now 79 years old, conducting the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. I have long contended the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra to be the best in Latin America, and more than just a blip on the international scene. They are a fine orchestra and they play in a great acoustic space known as Sala Sao Paulo, a transformed railway station. Add to this the artistry of Isaac Karabtchevsky and there is music making here which will get your attention, and hold it.
The first disc published in this cycle included the Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. They are excellent performances. On my player right now is the second volume, encompassing two of three symphonies commissioned by the Brazilian government at the end of World War I, each of the works addressing, respectively, the topics of “War,” “Victory,” and “Peace.” These are Villa-Lobos' Symphonies 3-5. Unfortunately, the “Fifth Symphony – Peace” has been lost. Thus the two works played on this second disc give us only “War” and “Victory.” Like the previous disc, this shows the international caliber of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. There is playing here of the highest quality, leading me to question a somewhat denigrating remark made by a writer for “The Guardian.” Said writer wondered “how an orchestra of truly international class might light up this music.” I believe the answer is obvious, for the Sao Paulo Orchestra is such an ensemble.
The symphonies of Villa-Lobos are the last of the composer's major works to come to full light of day. We once heard arguments that the symphonic form was either of no interest to Villa-Lobos, or something he just wasn't good at. However, Enrique Diemecke brought the “Symphony No. 4” to light in 1996 on a Dorian recording with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Then my old friend Carl St. Clair began his cycle of the complete symphonies with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, on the CPO label. Today, St. Clair's box set is the only complete cycle, and it is one to be savored. The sound and the interpretations are very good. But it is always enlightening to have other interpretations. Not only does this inform us as listeners, but in the case of the now emerging cycle from Sao Paulo, we get readings from somewhat different versions of the scores than those used by St. Clair and the Stuttgart RSO.
This is music well worth your attention. However, don't expect the same folk elements which make the "Bachianas Brasileiras" and the "Choros" so appealing. What you can expect, however, is a compelling musical argument for why we should listen openly to this other side of Villa-Lobos. If indeed, he is a diamond in the rough, as many argue, the alternate facets nevertheless glow with the same flawed genius which keeps us coming back to Villa-Lobos' better known works.
Bottom line: check these recordings out, and keep an eye on the other recordings as they become available. If first indications are reliable, and I've no reason to think otherwise, the Sao Paulo and Maestro Karabtchevsky will continue to give us recordings worthy of repeated listening.