Villa-Lobos: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 13

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COMPOSERS: Villa-Lobos
LABELS: Marco Polo
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 13
PERFORMER: Danubius Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.223389 DDD
Although Villa-Lobos is the best-known of all South American composers, his oeuvre is so vast and multifarious that whole regions of it remain unknown. Many admirers of the Bachianas Brasileiras and the guitar works may be surprised to learn that he was devoted to the great ‘abstract’ forms, writing 12 symphonies and 17 string quartets. No label has yet embarked on a series of the symphonies, but these two Marco Polo discs are instalments in a complete collection of the quartets by the Budapest-based Danubius Quartet.

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In fact, though their structures are more balanced and classical, Villa-Lobos’s characteristic stylistic melange of Brazilian dance-rhythms, popularly inflected melody and French-influenced harmony and texture remains much the same in his quartets as in his more colourful orchestral works. One could easily imagine many movements of these quartets in orchestral form; yet they’re true chamber music, not orchestral music manqtié- deft and refined essays by a master of his medium.

Five of the six quartets recorded here date from the last 15 years of the composer’s life – and the suite-like First Quartet, officially from 1915, may in fact have been written in 1946, but even so they seem to get better as Villa-Lobos gets older.

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While the loveliest music recorded here may well be the Adagio of Quartet No. 13, listeners wanting merely to sample this repertoire should get the other disc: Nos. 16 and 17 are particularly fine. But in those works the Danubius, whose performances are throughout assured, come up against stiff competition from the Brazilian Cuarteto Bessler-Reis on Chant du Monde. And in direct comparison, the Brazilians (who’ve presumably been playing the music much longer) have the edge. Calum MacDonald