Two New CDs of Brazilian Music:

a review and a comparison


Music is one of the strongest vehicles for the construction and experience of national culture.  When it is the bassoon (as everyone remembers, an originally European instrument) that meets Brazilian musics, Brazilian musicians (interpreters, composers, and arrangers) and Brazilian luthiers and woods, the interaction produces a world of its own and our expectations for something originally increase.  But why and how do music and the bassoon cross paths in Brazil?  This review is an attempt to delve into these encounters or, perhaps, to ask permission to play with a few answers to this question: What is the Brazilian bassoon (or just a bassoon brasileiro) in these two distinct projects?  My aim here is not to compare the recordings.  Rather, I will briefly separately review each CD and follow that with a juxtaposition of what Morelli and Schweizer offer us musically and the possible significance for bassoonists and Brazilian music enthusiasts alike.
Frank Morelli titled his recording Bassoon Brasileiro, and it is coherent with what the listeners will experience throughout this 20-track album: two words in two different languages, a 70+ minute encounter between music for bassoon written by two of the most important Brazilian composers of the 20th century and a U.S. bassoonist.  Morelli presents his own view on Brazilianness.  Morelli innovates by giving new light to mainly canonic Brazilian art music works for the (just Brazilian?) bassoon with passionate phrasings, captivating sonority, outstanding technique and mature interpretation.  The CD opens with Francisco Mignone’s concertino for bassoon and chamber orchestra, a piece rich in traditional-style melodies and rhythmically complex passages that demand virtuosity and use the entire range of the instrument.
Two pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos follow the concertino.  The first is an adaptation of the Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 (originally for soprano and cello ensemble and later adapted for soprano and guitar).  In this extremely lyrical aria, Morelli’s subtle nuances in timbre contribute to the melody’s intimacy.  This is one of the two pieces recorded by both Morelli and Schweizer (more on this later).  Second, the Ciranda das sete notas, a mix of virtuosity, traditional sounding melodies and harmonies, and a Stravinskean air, serves as a bridge from the accompanied to the unaccompanied bassoon.  Each “frame” of the ciranda is clearly shaped and conceived, with a magic timbre in the upper register particularly in parts of the last section of the piece.  The orchestra shares in this with good balance and sharp interpretation. The last C of the ciranda, in pianissimo, serves as a prelude for Mignone’s sixteen waltzes for unaccompanied bassoon, written for French-Brazilian bassoon ist Noël Devos, whose recording of the complete series was, until this CD, the only recording.  Morelli’s challenge (and that of everyone who doesn’t play on a French bassoon) was to combine the overt lyricism and virtuosism of the waltzes with particular agility and versatility in the high-upper register with ease.  However, Morelli could have minimized here the use of reverb to preserve the natural, actual sound.
Morelli himself wrote the liner notes which, despite some errors, are rich in historical information about Brazilian modernism in music and the album’s recorded works.  This information is preceded by the title “The rise of Brazil’s musical identity” which may be read as “The search for a Brazilian musical identity by the musical avant-garde in the early 20th century.”  Does a country have an inherent identity or a syncretic set of practices based on the meeting of cultures (Brazilian musical culture meeting with Western instruments and composition)?  The bassoon has definitely contributed to this search, and the two CDs are a vivid proof of this.
Hary Schweizer, Brazilian of German descent, shaped a repertoire based on music written by Brazilians (including the tangos of Argentine-born living in Brazil since 1959 Emilio Terraza) and Germans (one of them Schweizer’s former bassoon instructor in Munich).  That’s an example of the inherent hybridity of Brazilianness and articulated throughout the recording and liner notes.  Unlike Morelli, this is Schweizer’s first solo album.  As a former student of Schweizer, I can say Com licença!… is a sonic storytelling of his life as a musician, professor, bassoon maker and (Brazilian) human being; or, following Schweizer’s liner-notes, something of a suite representing moments in his life career as a bassoonist and bassoon maker. CD has a quite contrasting repertoire, I won’t get into each piece in detail (rather, I intend this review as a motivation to listen to both Schweizer’s and Morelli’s albums).
All the pieces in the CD share the clear and beautiful sound of Schweizer bassoons, including the “junior” model for children in Mahle’s Melodias da Cecília which all of Schweizer’s students play in their first performance.  The album displays Schweizer’s versatility in interpreting  music as varied as popular works (by Medáglia, Jobim, Nazareth, Wolkoff, Gonzaga), new tango (Terraza), reworked traditional music (Mignone, Villa-Lobos), Christmas music (von Lorne), a baroque sonata (Marcello,) and jazz (Herkendrath).  Some of the pieces here were written to be first played on a new Schweizer bassoon!  The double meaning of the title of the CD supports Schweizer’s type of innovation: a certain freedom of interpretation Schweizer’s varied repertoire includes some first recordings, like Jobim’s previously unknown Mágoas de fagote, adaptations (again, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5) and free versions of particular pieces (lsuch as adding drums to Marcello’s sonata in e minor!) with coherent and intimate interpretation, bright technique and charming sound (including the close to absent key noise of his bassoons).  He also shares the recording with some former students (Figueiredo Jr. and Koberstein) and their non-Schweizer bassoons, and with other musicians who have been close to him at important moments of his career.  The liner-notes are mainly testimonial and therefore an opportunity for the reader and listener to know more about the singularity of Schweizer’s life and the context of this project (including pictures of Schweizer’s atelier and of bottles of his unforgettable home-made cachaça)
The two CDs contain two works in common: Villa-Lobos’ Aria of Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 and Mignone’s waltz Aquela modinha que o Vila não escreveu (“That modinha that Villa[-Lobos] didn’t write”).  The two adaptations of Villa-Lobos’ piece differ in instrumentation (guitar versus piano accompaniment) and in the mid-section.   While in Morelli’s recording the guitar more closely resembles the original cello ensemble than the piano in Schweizer’s CD (although beautifully played it sounds too distant to me), Schweizer’s idea of an “instrumental interlude” avoids the repetition of notes originally written with lyrics, but proving excessive when played on the bassoon.  Mignone’s waltz is an example of two contrasting interpretations of a very transparent modinha (diminutive of moda or fashion, a song genre): Morelli opts for more rubato while Schweizer decided to change the last four notes of the waltz to an octave higher, perhaps seeking a more melancholic end.  The overlapping of only these two pieces is symbolic in the sense that, despite his fabulous oeuvre, “what Villa-Lobos didn’t write” Mignone supposedly did. And, similarly, I believe that what Morelli or Schweizer didn’t record others will.
Morelli and Schweizer present different sounds, disparate concepts of sound recording, and distinct projects, both Brazilians in their own ways and to their own extents.  Brazilianness in these cases encompasses a whole spectrum of possibilities in timbre, musicality, virtuosity, musical interpretation, selection of repertoire and type of production.  Morelli follows a legacy of well-known musicians who focus on a Brazilian musical repertoire[1] and, as I feel it, offering a long meditation on the moods of the bassoon brasileiro.  Schweizer opts for a rather personal and passionate, more eclectic and cosmopolitan project based in Brazil and using a Brazilian bassoon.  This all means there is more than one possible bassoon brasileiro and, again, I hope more bassoonists will engage in adding their own takes to Morelli’s and Schweizer’s marvelous initiatives of giving sound to the encounter between different Brazils and bassoons.



Bassoonist and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology

The CUNY Graduate Center


[1] This trend, I believe, started with Argentinean music (perhaps thanks to Astor Piazzolla) and moved then to its Brazilian counterpart.  Previous examples of this are Daniel Baremboim’s Mi Buenos Aires Querido (Tangos Among Friends for the English-speaking audience[Teldec, 1996]), Yo-Yo Ma’s Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla (Sony, 1997), Baremboim’s Brazilian Rhapsody (Teldec, 2000) and Yo-Yo Ma’s Obrigado Brazil (Sony, 2003) and Obrigado Brazil Live in Concert (Sony, 2004).

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