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Silvestre REVUELTAS (1899-1940)

Sensemayá [6:37]
Inocente CARREÑO (b. 1919)

Margariteña [13:29]
Antonio ESTÉVEZ (1916-1988)

Mediodia en el Llano [8:01]
Arturo MÁRQUEZ (b. 1950)
Danzón No.2 [9:45]
Aldemaro ROMERO (1928-2007)
Fuga con Pajarillo from Suite para cuerdas (version for orchestra) [7:08]
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Estancia: Danzas del Ballet, Op. 8
I. Los trabajadores agrícolas [2:57]
II. Danza del trigo [3:43]
III. Los peones de hacienda [1:58]
IV. Danza final (Malambo) [3:23]
Evencio CASTELLANOS (1915-1984)
Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (Suite Sinfónica) [16:19]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
West Side Story -- Symphonic Dances

Mambo [2:29]
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. January 2008, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Sala Simón Bolivar, Caracas, Venezuela
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7457 [75:57]
Experience Classicsonline


What a knockout concert these young players gave at last year’s Proms. It was an inspirational evening and intensely theatrical too: I well remember that marvellous moment when the players threw off their jackets to reveal the colourful Venezuelan flags beneath. And then there were the extraordinary scenes at the end as some of the youngsters jumped into the Arena to dance with the Prommers. An intoxicating night for all concerned.

At the root of this extraordinary enterprise is a serious musical education programme called ‘El Sistema’, that encourages children from disadvantaged and impoverished backgrounds to play an instrument. Once in this safe and nurturing environment they can then become part of this youth orchestra, now one of the most celebrated and charismatic on the planet. At the helm is the equally charismatic Gustavo Dudamel, whose infectious charm and good humour – apparent to everyone in the Albert Hall – is an essential component of the band’s success.

One might be tempted to make allowances for youth and inexperience but I defy anyone not to be deeply moved by their committed playing and enviable esprit de corps. How often does one see an orchestra so responsive to its public, so eager to please and so delighted by their rapturous applause? No, these Venezuelans are simply wonderful, this disc a welcome reminder of the night they took London by storm.

Some of the items on this disc, notably the dances from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia and the symphonic dances from West Side Story, were played at the Proms and it’s good to hear them again. And although this is a live performance one wouldn’t know it until the hall erupts at the encore. DG were wise to opt for this rather than a studio recording, as an audience brings out the flamboyant best in these players. And even though there is an occasional imprecision or lapse of ensemble this is as thrilling a performance as one could possibly hope for.

The concert begins with Sensemayá, by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Despite Dudamel’s description of the piece as a ‘Latin-American Rite of Spring’ it has a sultry beat and some finger-clicking tunes. The recording is clear and crisp, although you need to crank up the volume before it all snaps into focus. The brass and percussion pack a terrific punch, Dudamel holding it all together with great skill. I was particularly impressed by the cumulative power of this piece and how the playing retains coherence and focus, even in the high-octane passages.

And in case you think this is all about octane ratings these youngsters prove they can play softly and sweetly too. Just listen to the nostalgic opening to Margariteña, by the Venezuelan composer Inocente Carreño. Admittedly this piece has its share of big moments but it’s the quieter ones that highlight the strengths of individual players and sections. In those expansive climaxes the massed strings sound suitably impassioned, the hyperactive percussion – a performance in itself at the Prom – just splendid.

But it’s the rhythmic section beginning at 4:36 that really bowled me over. Goodness, this is spectacular stuff, the ensuing instrumental dialogue full of character and delightfully sprung. Really, there is little one can say when faced with such heartfelt playing; and just listen to those hair-raising Brucknerian horn calls at 9:16. After that comes the mother of all perorations.

It’s a smashing piece and one that surely deserves to be more widely heard. Of course whether anyone else could deliver it with such panache is debatable. Happily there’s nothing overblown or relentless about this well-chosen programme, helped in no small measure by DG’s fine recording. Even though it’s only vanilla stereo – Universal abandoned SACD some time ago – the music has tremendous range and depth, making it an ideal demonstration disc.

The Estévez item, translated as ‘Noon on the plain’, begins with the orchestral equivalent of a heat haze. It’s slow siesta music, full of languor but requiring careful instrumental articulation and pointing. Enchanting, it’s an excellent foil to the more rumbustious piece that precedes it. The lyrical central section has a widescreen quality to it, a slow, majestic pan across Venezuela’s high steppes. And what a wonderfully hushed ending, very well sustained.

Rhythmically Danzón No. 2, by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, is as pliant and seductive as one could wish for. The simple Latin swing alternates with some more animated passages dominated by the timps and brass. Really, I can’t recall a disc that exudes so much life and soul. And these Venezuelans must be a hardy lot, as they show no signs of strain or tiredness.

Once again the less frenetic but still lively Fuga con Pajarillo by the Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero makes a good contrast with what has gone before. It’s a pleasing interlude, with some crisp pizzicato string playing and plenty of momentum. It may not be the most assured or memorable piece here – or the most polished in terms of ensemble – but at least it offers a temporary respite before the whirlwind strikes.

The four dances from Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s ballet Estancia (‘The ranch’) are familiar from the Prom concert and they’re every bit as exhilarating as I remember them. The percussion has a field day in the first dance, translated as ‘The land workers’, but as usual it’s the phenomenal rhythmic articulation that impresses most. Is there nothing these young players can’t do? The pounding beat will certainly give your speakers a workout.

The languid ‘Wheat dance’ is superbly done, the strings once again proving they can play en masse with great ardour and precision. The gentle harp tune is well caught too, but it’s back to the big band sound with ‘Los peones de hacienda’ and one of the highlights from that Prom, ‘Malambo’. The strings are simply heroic, the rest of the orchestra playing as if their lives depended on it. How the audience managed to stay so quiet is something of a mystery to me, although they do let rip at the final encore.

But first there’s the evocative Santa Cruz de Pacairigua by the Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos, which opens with some atmospheric trumpet playing and soon modulates into a familiar rhythmic pattern. Extraordinarily for a disc containing 75 minutes of Latin-American music the programming is varied and interesting enough to stave off boredom. Indeed, I can only recall one other disc that does the same, LAGQ’s Brazil! (see review).

Yes, the Castellanos is a bit of a blockbuster but at 5:48 there is a meltingly beautiful interlude that proves the orchestra can also play with great delicacy and inner feeling. As that Prom so visibly demonstrated Dudamel has a special rapport with his players and it’s simply astonishing the warmth and unanimity of sound he draws from them. There is much to delight the ear in this piece, which is well crafted enough to sustain its length.

The symphonic dances from West Side Story made a huge impact in the Albert Hall last year, the cool, athletic scoring a complete contrast to the equatorial heat of the earlier pieces. Such is the exuberance of this encore that I was sorely tempted to join in the shouts and cheers that greet the first few notes. Even after a long evening these players are indefatigable, their shouts of ‘Mambo!’ adding to the general excitement. It’s pretty much a fiesta atmosphere at this point, with the audience joining in. What a cracking finale to an utterly irresistible programme.

Having run out of superlatives now’s the time to sum up. To be honest there isn’t much left to say. I suppose I could mention their disappointing DG Mahler 5, whose complexities defeated even these multi-talented players, but who wants to be a party pooper?

Definitely one of my discs of the year.

Dan Morgan




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