HEITOR VILLA-LOBOS – String Quartet No. 15

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos [1887-1959] wrote seventeen string quartets. I am going to discuss SQ No. 15 which is in four movements.

The work starts with a gorgeous melodic passage until things start getting a little heavier. The violin constantly spins out melodies over the ensemble as it moves through different moods. The sound from the ensemble is very full at all times. A brief pause leads to a drop in intensity and a lilting section. A fabulous ascending violin line moves into a serious moment. This music is very rhapsodic and sometimes folk-like. The violin takes flight and is very busy. Rhythmic assertions are prominent but we are left with a brief interlude for two violins until the cello thunders in to conclude the movement on a full chord.

The next movement, marked moderato, is actually very slow. A shimmering violin plays string sound effects for the introduction which leads into a mournful melody backed by a cello motif. The violin starts in the low register before rising to lighten the atmosphere. Superb chordal accompaniment sustains the mood as the violins explore the melody. A new, swirling melody develops and the violin moves into its high register. The cello signals the return of a mournful mood and the violin picks up on the cello melody. The cello is prominent for a time until the violins return. A brief pause and we are back at the beginning. The introduction of a sustained cello note allows the violins to drift to the conclusion.

For me, this is the emotional centrepiece of the work or ‘heart and soul’ if you like. The melodies are magnificent in their conception and execution.

The third movement is very short at two minutes. It’s a joyful folk-like dance, with all instruments playing their role. Not being overly familiar with Brazilian music, I think of it as having a very Spanish flavour. The ending is particularly inspired, with a lot happening in a very brief time.

Solo cello introduces the final movement. Things become quite rhapsodic as the cello interweaves with the violins. There is a warmth to this music that is probably part of the native style. There is a section of much interplay, together with harmonic changes. Suddenly the feeling is intensified and there are many ascending and descending lines here. The cello recalls the beginning, this time in a truncated form. The violins dance over a warm cello phrase. The cello dominates for a time. When the violins return, the phrasing reminds me of the string writing from Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, but I doubt that he would agree! A low rumbling passage ensues and the ensemble gathers itself for a slightly dissonant flourish.

This work is available on several single CD releases, including the Danubius Quartet who have recorded the complete quartets. There is also a complete 6-CD set by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. All of these items are on Amazon US and UK.

The Danubius Quartet version is on Spotify coupled with SQs Nos. 3 and 10. There are also several versions on youtube.

Listenability: A striking, rhythmically incisive work, with a great slow movement.

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