CD REVIEW:
SOUTH FLORIDA ARTIST TRIUMPHS IN 
SCINTILLATING SALUTE TO BRAZILIAN COMPOSER


By Lawrence Budmen

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. A distinctive creative voice in the Western Hemisphere, the Brazilian composer wrote 14 symphonies, 9 “Bachianas Brasileiras,” 16 Choros, 5 operas, and more chamber music than anyone can catalogue. (Some of these scores remain unpublished although they do receive occasional performances.) That is not counting his scores for Brazilian and Hollywood films or his Broadway musical “Magdalena” (co-authored with Miami natives Robert Wright and George Forest). 

Villa-Lobos was not a skilled pianist (although he was a formidable conductor) and piano music accounts for a small portion of his vast compositional output. A new recording on the Louisiana based Centaur label (www.Centaurrecords.com) features some striking Villa-Lobos keyboard works in often brilliant performances by South Florida resident Roberta Rust. Ms. Rust is a graduate of the University Of Miami School Of Music and has long been one of the area’s most esteemed teachers. She is also a versatile artist with a formidable technique. Several seasons ago Ms. Rust gave bravura performances of music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk at Festival Miami – including that composer’s almost unplayable Fantasia on the Brazilian National Anthem. 

This new Villa-Lobos disc was recorded at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall in close-up, stunningly clear perspective by renowned recording engineer Peter McGrath. (The recording was produced by Phillip Evans, Ms. Rust’s husband and duo-piano partner and sometime music critic.) The disc opens with the composer’s four movement “Ciclo Brasileiro” (1936-37). From the first bars Ms. Rust’s elegant, multi-hued tonal shadings delight the ear. She captures the wistful nostalgia of “Impressions of the Serenades.” “Festival at Sertao” literally bristles with instrumental color. “Waltz of Sorrows” is an aristocratic valse noble in the vein of Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” This music walks a fine line between the salon and the concert hall. Ms. Rust’s sparkling playing would be welcome in either venue. 

“Rudepoema” (“Savage Poem”) (1926) was composed for the great virtuoso Artur Rubinstein. Here is Villa-Lobos the modernist. The composer spent much of the 1920’s in Paris – the capital of the early 20th century avant-garde. His friendships with impresario Sergei Diaghilev and such composers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and the French “Les Six” find pungent expression in this striking work. Pounding rhythms, harsh dissonances, rapid fire pyrotechnics, and barbaric revelry abound in this blazing score. Indeed this work is a pianistic masterpiece on the level of Prokofiev or Scriabin. Few pianists dare attempt this score’s fierce octaves and juxtapositions. Ms. Rust produces torrents of sweeping virtuosity. Her playing is alternately heaven storming, limpid, and dynamic. A true tour de force!

By contrast the Baroque textures of “Bachianas Brasileiras No.4” (1930-41) receive scrupulous classical precision from this talented artist. Villa-Lobos’s combination of Bach counterpoint and indigenous Brazilian folk elements is utterly captivating. From the strict Baroque aura of the Preludio to the invigorating final Dansa Ms. Rust’s playing perfectly gauges the music’s dual personality. The Suite Floral” (1916-18) is an ode to Debussy. The hazy sheen of Ms. Rust’s pianism in “Idyll in the Hammock” defines Impressionism. What charm and vibrance she brings to “Joy in the Garden.” 

The concluding “Choros No.5” (“Alma Brasileira”) (1925) is a wild, power pounding display of Amazon rhythms. (Indeed the Choros were the springboard for Villa-Lobos’s pulsating score for the 1950’s film “Forest of the Amazon” – one of his greatest works.) Ms. Rust gives a scintillating performance of this Brazilian showpiece that combines brilliance and patrician musicality in equal measure.

Roberta Rust is one of South Florida’s greatest artistic treasures. She deserves to be heard in concert locally more often. This wonderful new recording is pure Miami: Brazilian music played by a South Florida artist in a prestigious UM venue under the supervision of the area’s premier recording engineer. A total delight! Bravo!


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