Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review: Cuarteto Latinoamericano

March 29, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

In "Experiencing Villa-Lobos," the three-day festival just concluded at Virginia Commonwealth University, at least two sides of Heitor Villa-Lobos came through: The romantic sensualist, a kind of Brazilian Chausson; and the modern formalist, whose materials keep breaking out of their formal confines for soulful song and uninhibited dance.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano, an ensemble that specializes in Latin American music generally and Villa-Lobos especially (having recorded his 17 string quartets for Dorian), essayed those two sides of the composer in his First and Seventh quartets, along with the Second Quartet of Villa-Lobos’ compatriot Francisco Mignone.

The musicians – violinists Saúl Bitrán and Arón Britrán, violist Javier Montiel and cellist Alvaro Bitrán – sensibly hoarded the bulk of their intensity and concentration for Villa-Lobos’ Seventh Quartet (1943), one of his largest and most rigorous compositions. The foursome has mastered the piece’s considerable technical challenges, and so can bring a welcome measure of spontaneity to music that otherwise could be an effortful slog.

Villa-Lobos looms audibly over Mignone’s 1957 quartet, although Mignone expresses himself more concisely and gives way more freely to dance rhythms. This performance reached its peak in the Bartókian finale, "Desafio."

Villa-Lobos’ First Quartet (1915) is rooted more explicitly in song and dance and is far more sensual in tone. The ensemble, perhaps anticipating the rigors to come, seemed slow to warm to this more accessible and expressive music. Wayward intonation didn’t help, either.