Thursday, November 1, 2012

Villa-Lobos and Pujol: Two Kinds of Prelude

Last week, as an introduction to my recordings of the preludes by Máximo Diego Pujol, I did a post called "The Latin American Prelude and Some History". Now I would like to do a postlude because there are some interesting differences between Villa-Lobos' handling of the prelude and Pujol's.

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote five (or maybe six?) preludes in 1940. Some of them at least were played by Segovia, even though he was not the dedicatee as he was in much of the music by Ponce, Rodrigo and Moreno Torroba. Villa-Lobos dedicated his preludes for guitar to "Mindinha" or Arminda Neves d'Almeida who was Villa-Lobos' companion from 1936 until his death in 1959. The first prelude, in E minor, was a Segovia favorite.


I doubt anyone could handle that cello-like melody in the bass in the first part as lyrically as Segovia. For absolute rhythmic accuracy one would look elsewhere, to John Williams, for example, but the tone-color and vibrato of Segovia was really remarkable. This prelude is in arch-form: ABCBA. The prelude no. 2 I have put up before, but here is another performance:


It is surprisingly hard to find good performances of this prelude, but Pepe Romero, whom one does not usually think of as a Villa-Lobos interpreter, does an amazing job. That arpeggio in the middle is very difficult to master because the right hand fingering is awkward. The other problem is that the shifting makes it hard to avoid squeaking. But you would never even know these were problems listening to Pepe! The form of this prelude is a straightforward ABA with the middle section quicker.

The Prelude No. 3 is a favorite with students because it is technically a bit easier than the others. It is an hommage to Bach, mostly shown in the descending compound melody of the second part. A compound melody, one of Bach's specialties, is created by making one melodic line suggest two. Here, a high note is interspersed with a descending scale, which sounds like one melody turning into two. The form of this prelude is ABAB. John Williams has always played this prelude with particular intensity:


The Prelude No. 4 is another one with slow outer sections and a quick arpeggio in the middle. It is Villa-Lobos' hommage to the music and culture of the natives of Brazil. Here is a performance by Julian Bream (or you could go listen to mine here):


The Prelude No. 5 is a waltz in the form ABCA. It is in the style of the popular music of Brazilian society at the time: light, charming music.


Villa-Lobos had a great advantage over most composers for guitar: he was a guitarist, though a composer first. Segovia has made criticisms of the way Villa-Lobos wrote for guitar and there is no denying that many pieces pose unusual technical problems. Only very accomplished guitarists can solve them all. But the music is still idiomatic for guitar and the brilliant use it makes of the sonorities of the instrument is one reason these preludes are so popular. There is real originality here too, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, but at the same time the music is never too far from its roots.

Pujol is a guitarist first, I suspect, and a composer second. His preludes are perfectly idiomatic for guitar with none of those awkwardnesses we find in Villa-Lobos. He never writes an awkward arpeggio, though the left hand does have to stretch a bit here and there. Though warmly expressive, Pujol's preludes are never as original as Villa-Lobos' and never get far enough from their roots in the tango! They are not quite as easy to play as they sound, as many student guitarists have discovered, but they are beautiful pieces for guitar that will charm the audience even though they may not have as much substance as the preludes by Villa-Lobos.

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