Villa-Lobos: Suite Floresta do Amazonas review – a hymn to the abundance of the rainforest

In 1958 Heitor Villa-Lobos was commissioned by MGM to provide the music for Green Mansions, a film version of the 1904 novel of the same name by WH Hudson, set in the Amazon rainforest and starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. But when it was released the following year, only a few minutes of Villa-Lobos’s score had made the final cut, and even that had been arranged and reorchestrated to the point of being almost unrecognisable. Undaunted, he reworked the music he had composed, adding further choral and solo vocal numbers to create a gigantic work in 23 movements. Floresta do Amazonas is part oratorio, part symphonic poem and lasts almost 80 minutes.

A hymn to the power and overwhelming abundance of the Brazilian rainforest, it was to be Villa-Lobos’s last major work, and in many ways it seems to be a summation of his whole wildly varied career as a composer. Yet because of its sheer scale and the forces involved, complete performances of Floresta do Amazonas have always been rare. They were hindered, too, by the state of the original manuscript, in which the composer’s intentions were not always obvious. But a new edition of the full score clarified things. It was recorded complete as part of John Neschling’s Villa-Lobos series on BIS in 2010), and from that the conductor Simone Menezes has extracted an 11-movement concert suite, omitting the choral music but including four of the sections involving a solo soprano.

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The suite was originally assembled for the Amazônia project, accompanying an exhibition of Sebastião Salgado’s wonderfully evocative photographs of the great river and its peoples, and it has been performed in concert with projections of those images. Two years ago a chamber orchestra arrangement of the suite was performed at the Barbican in London by the Britten Sinfonia with Menezes conducting. But this recording, with a movement from Philip Glass’s ballet Aguas da Amazonia added as a makeweight, uses a full-sized symphony orchestra, so the over-the-top exuberance of the score is more vivid than ever, while the inclusion of a selection of Salgado’s superb images enhances the accompanying booklet.

As so often with Villa-Lobos the music is uneven, and there are passages when its cinematic origins are just a bit too obvious. But even in this abridged version it is hard to resist the scope of the work and its moments of intense beauty particularly in the vocal movements, rapturously sung by Camila Provenzale – while stylistically it encapsulates much of the history of music in the first half of the 20th century in a very distinctive way.