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Posted October 1, 2010
The Complete Villa-Lobos Symphonies were recorded in 1997-2000 by Carl St. Clair and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR.  This ground-breaking set included world recording premieres of Symphonies 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 11, & 12.  Not that there are that many recordings of the others, though - none of the Symphonies is as well-known as works in the great Bachianas Brasileiras or Choros series. But I would place all 11 of these recordings (the score to #5 is lost) at the top, or close to the top, of those available.
Unlike his other two series, though, Villa-Lobos's Symphonic cycle doesn't represent his best work.  It's easy to find fault with many of these works, but Villa-Lobos learned to write impressive music for large orchestras early in his career, and was highly praised over the years for his imaginative and colourful orchestration, if not for his grasp of large-scale musical architecture. Each time I listen to these still-unfamiliar works I find something new and interesting, and I'm starting to really appreciate particular symphonies. The neo-classical no. 8 and the uncharacteristically well-structured no. 4 are becoming favourites.
Another stand-out is #10, written for the 400th Anniversary of the City of Sao Paulo, and based in part on the writings of the 16th century missionary Jose de Anchieta. This Symphony has significant rivals - Gisele Ben-Dor's version with the Santa Barbara Symphony on Koch, and Victor Pablo Perez's with the Symphony Orchestra of Tenerife on Harmonia Mundi - but any perceived slight advantage from another version won't reduce the value of this cpo set. The Tenth Symphony has the same pull-out-all-the-stops feeling of the great Choros #10, which many commentators (and I) believe is Villa's greatest work.
The missing fifth star isn't the fault of the admirable St. Clair, the Stuttgart musicians, or the cpo engineers. The music isn't top-drawer Villa-Lobos but it's always really interesting because it always sounds like Villa-Lobos.
It's a golden age for beginning a Villa-Lobos music collection. The cpo Symphonies and superb complete sets of the Choros, Bachianas Brasileiras, String Quartets, and Works for Piano provide a big chunk of Villa-Lobos's legendarily large output at a pretty reasonable total cost. It couldn't happen to a more deserving composer!