First, the personnel. Paul Desenne is a Venezuelan composer. He was a founder member of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, playing the cello. He is also active in music journalism. Nancy Green is an American cellist. Her discography includes such staples as the Debussy Sonata alongside more unusual repertoire. Each of the two artists has a useful website.
It is unsurprising that, as a cellist himself, Desenne has composed so much music for the instrument. He writes in the booklet, “For many years, I have worked to renew the role of the cello in solo and ensemble composition, stressing ingredients and natural resources that many composers had previously hinted at, such as percussive and tone color combinations.” Of the six works on this disc, Jaguar Songs is a sonata for solo cello, whereas all the other works are written either for three or four cellos. Amazingly, Nancy Green plays all the parts.
This music is derived from, and aims to recreate, the sounds of Latin America. The composer writes that Glass Bamboo Frog Consort “transposes flamboyant Renaissance stretto polyphony to the Caribbean tropical night of insects and spirits.” It’s a very affecting piece. For four cellos, it begins with a gently moving passage in triple time which eventually gives way to a livelier middle section, becoming calmer once again before the end. Quite a few chromatic notes creep in, and whilst the majority of the music lies in the upper reaches of the cello register, there is plenty of variety of texture. The Steve Reich of Different Trains or Violin Phase comes to mind. Pájaro-Guaracha and Kaliguasa, on the other hand, sound nothing like him. I’d have to evoke Piazzolla, but this would be inadequate, as this music sounds like no other I have encountered. Again for an ensemble of four cellos, Desenne describes them as “studies in local Venezuelan genres”. He also writes that the music relates to “Villa-Lobos’ thick scoring for cello consorts”. One immediately thinks of the Bachianas Brasileiras for cello ensemble, but there is more affinity in sound with the ninth in the series, for string orchestra. Each of these two short pieces pulsates with life, highly rhythmic, as you would expect, but very lyrical too, the melodic elements more and more in evidence with each hearing. Kaliguasa is the gentler of the two, with a more sustained high-lying melodic line, but each one is characterised by a virtuoso control of texture, with pizzicato effects frequently used to mark the rhythm.
Anyone wanting a taster of this disc would probably not be advised to begin with Aeroglifos. For three cellos, this is the least immediately attractive work here. The composer describes it as “a nocturne inspired by the hallucinating Kamu Purrui musical ritual of the Kuna people from Colombia and Panama … each player knows exactly when to blow his note within a precise sequence of hundreds.” It features rather more than the others some astringent harmonies as well as effects such as playing near the bridge or the fingerboard. It leads without a break into Pizziquitiplás, also for three cellos, suggesting that the composer is happy for the two pieces to form a pair, even though the second dates from 1989 and is the earliest music on the disc. As its title suggests, this work makes important use of pizzicato techniques. In effect, one of the three voices sustains a cantabile line, made up of short melodic fragments, constantly repeated and played with the bow, whilst the other two voices display a dazzling range of pizzicato techniques as accompaniment. The composer found that the cello could “imitate the spirit” of the quitiplás, “an Afro-Venezuelan form of bamboo percussion in trios”. The work begins in a spirit of boundless energy, gradually becoming calmer and lapsing almost into silence at the close.
The longest work on the disc is entitled Jaguar Songs. The composer again: “In Amazonian mythology, the jaguar represents blood, and also death, or sudden commotion.” Quite so. The first movement begins with rhythmic, drum-like effects, and the whole movement is rapid and bewilderingly varied. The second is a lament for the destruction of the rain forests. It opens with soft pulsing, representing the forests, and leads to more violent music representing chainsaws. The cello imitates an electric guitar in the third movement, very successfully too, and in the fourth evokes the spirit of the Brazilian traditional instrument, the berimbau, whose single string is struck with a metal prong. Then there is the very strange, slithering passage where “friars of the Conquest are … eaten by carnivorous worms that then start to sing and modulate in Gregorian modes.” The ensuing violent dance is delivered with startling virtuosity.
The final track on the disc, Birimbao-Jaguar with effects, is the final movement of the sonata with electronic effects added by the sound engineer, Wiley Ross. The composer writes that “amazingly, the effects seem to express the latent desires of the text.”
The performances by Nancy Green are stunning. She deserves official honours, both for her technical skill and for her faith in the music. And her faith is well founded, as these works are fascinating, engaging, exciting and often very beautiful. They are also superbly well written for the forces involved. The recorded sound is magnificent. I’m happy to nominate this as a Disc of the Month to all those with a sense of adventure. But not for the first time I also want to shout from the rooftops: “Heaven deliver us from composers who write about their own music!”