Even a whole weekend of concerts would hardly have been enough to do justice to the immense range and variety of Heitor Villa-Lobos's works, let alone to his significance to the history of Brazilian and Latin American music and music education, or to the larger-than-life, self-mythologising personality of the composer himself. The BBC gave itself just the one day: a Total Immersion event comprising three concerts, a talk and a film. After a lunchtime programme of Villa-Lobos's chamber music played by Guildhall School students, and early-evening vocal works from the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its Chorus and chief conductor Sakari Oramo offered something much more substantial.
Oramo had selected his programme very carefully, including examples of the three series of pieces – the symphonies, the Bachianas Brasileiras and the Chôroes – that provide some kind of spine to what is such a vast and hugely divergent output. He began with two of Villa-Lobos's colourful Brazilian evocations, opening with the 15-minute Uirapurú, a symphonic poem-cum-ballet built around the song and call of the Amazonian musician wren. It was followed by the fourth of the suites from his score to Humberto Mauro's 1937 film Descobrimento do Brasil, about the first Portuguese settlers in Brazil, which includes a typical combination of a plainchant mass setting and rhythmic, wordless chanting.
The Bachianas was the very well-known Fifth, for soprano (performed here by Anu Komsi) and eight cellos, while the symphony was the Ninth, composed in 1952 and a relatively well-behaved piece by Villa-Lobos's standards, in four compact neoclassical movements that are sometimes curiously reminiscent of Roussel. The two Chôroes from the mid-1920s, though, were thrilling to hear. The Eighth is among Villa-Lobos's greatest orchestral achievements, one of the pieces in which his music seems utterly original and impossible to pigeonhole. The two solo pianos (played heroically by Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe) are all but submerged by the teeming, tumbling orchestral textures around them, which constantly seem to be on the brink of disintegration and only stay bound together by the sheer force of Villa-Lobos's creative personality.
The huge choral frieze of Choros No 10, Rasga o Coração, has its texts, in Portuguese and "Amerindian", to keep it together; it may build to a noisy Hollywood-style climax, but before that arrives the exuberant layers of voices and instruments display a Charles Ives-like wildness. Oramo is really in his element in music like this, which offers its own perspective on early 20th-century modernism, and he and his orchestra made sure every bar of it mattered.
To be broadcast on Radio 3's Afternoon on 3 from 18 to 20 March.