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Debussy & Villa-Lobos

Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque (1890/1895); Deux Arabesques (1888); Estampes(1903); L'isle joyeuse (1904)
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Choro No.5: Alma brasileira (1926); A Prole do bebê, Book1 (1918); Valsa da dor (1932); Festa no sertão (Ciclo brasileiro No.3) (1936)

Cristina Ortiz (piano)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9 November 2009

Early Debussy and early/middle period Villa–Lobos make for a very attractive coupling - with the right pianist it’s a positive treat. Ortiz is Brazilian by birth and studied in France so her choice was apt, to say the least.

One seldom hears the Suite and his Arabesques in the concert hall; they are assumed to be trifles for students, but here they stood proud as strong works which demanded to be heard in the same programme as the Estampes – what a piece this is, Debussy having fun, as he was to do in the orchestral set of Images, with national identity through music. Ortiz characterized the four pieces of the Suite Bergamasque very well, understanding the archaic forms and making them work for the modern piano, using a delicate touch which was perfect for the music. Likewise the Arabesques were delicate and floated in the air; they felt so light. Nothing hot housed here.

Estampes brought about a change in temperature. The three pieces are mature Debussy but, again, Ortiz kept a firm control over the music so that even a fast piece such as Jardins sous la pluie was fully allowed to speak for itself and make its impression without any hint of being rushed. The fascinating L'isle joyeuse. which ended part one, is concerned with a trip to the mythical island of Cythère – so different from Poulenc’s valse-musette, L'embarquement pour Cythère – is filled with fistfuls of notes, and with a very satisfying build up to the final climax.

Ortiz was totally at home with this repertoire and it was a real joy to hear her making this most colourful music really come to life. After the interval we had four pieces by her countryman Heitor Villa–Lobos,  in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death. Villa–Lobos wrote a lot of music, and there is some inconsistency in his work, but when on form he is well worth hearing.

The first book of A Prole do bebê is a real winner – perhaps the pieces are a little too alike but it’s impossible not to fall for them. Likewise Festa no sertão, a real barnstormer of a piece, one guaranteed to bring the house down. It did. Three encores. The first and last – Brahms and Granados – in homage to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and in memory of Alicia de Larrocha, who died in September, and in the middle a marvellous piece by, I think, Frutuoso Vianna. I apologise if this is incorrect.

This show was a real treat and those of us present had more than our fill of excellent pianism. It is to be hoped that we see and hear Ortiz playing in London, where she has made her home, more often in the future.

Bob Briggs 


See Bob Briggs' interview with Cristina Ortiz and our review of her recording of Villa-Lobos' Choros 11 - a grandiose 63 minutes long piano concerto.