I’m fairly certain, that most of you, especially if you live
in the UK, will struggle to name six great Venezuelan musicians
let alone any significant composers. One however would have
to be Evencio Castellanos who, in his dual career as church
musician - he followed in his father’s footsteps as an organist
at the cathedral in Caracas - and as an orchestral player, administrator
and teacher is a very significant figure in Venezuelan musical
development. These two paths manifested themselves in choral,
sacred and organ works and in colourful orchestral ones like
these recorded in the marvellously enterprising Naxos Latin
Castellanos was a product, as it were, of the newly created
Orquesta Sinfonica de Venezuela, which gave his generation of
composers a chance to shine. This was mostly the result of the
influence of Vicente Sojo (d.1974) who was instrumental in nurturing
a nationalistic school of composers basing their work partly
on popular music.
How many Venezuelan composers do you know? Perhaps the names
of Raimundo Pereira and Antonio Lauro who is more associated
with the guitar, vaguely ring some sort of a bell. Others listed
in conductor Jan Wagner’s excellent booklet notes mean little
or next to nothing … at least to me.
The main work on the disc is the Suite Avileña,
which falls into five, impressionistic and evocative movements.
Castellanos orchestrates very colourfully as heard right from
the start in the Avileña section. Incidentally this
is a coastal, mountain area between Caracas and the Caribbean
shoreline. Some of the melodies are borrowed from flower vendors
heard in his nearby street. The second La Ronda de Niños
gives the composer a chance to incorporate some children’s songs.
The third, a fascinating Nocturno, includes some still
and warm harmonies in the strings against the strumming of a
group of cuatros – the cuatro is a four-stringed guitar. Wonderful
stuff. The next movement Amanecer de Navidad - Christmas
morning. practically leads into the final Navidad.
Both utilize popular local carol tunes and also, flitting across
the texture, a modernised Adeste Fidelis. Maracas also
appear in a couple of movements. The end of the work is a disappointment
and seems a little forced, otherwise this piece proves to be
a most attractive addition to the catalogue.
The previous year had seen the arrival of an even more nationalistic
work El Río de las Siete Estrellas (The River
of the Seven Stars). This has a distinct plot line being based
on a poem, which had just emerged, by A.E. Blanco. It sets out
a fabled account “of pre-Colonial Venezuelan history leading
up to its independence”. The story-line is weirdly complicated.
Musically it might seem little episodic were it not for its
gradual sense of growth. There’s a beautifully orchestrated
impressionistic start rising to the appearance of the Venezuelan
National Anthem at its climax, thus indicating “the final liberation
from the Spanish Conquest”. The piece, which includes a vivid
and militaristic battle scene, will never carry beyond its own
borders but is worth hearing occasionally. I should add that
the Venezuelan orchestra play with verve, enthusiasm and obvious
understanding. There is no question of anything other than an
ideal rendition of such an otherwise un-heard score.
It’s interesting that these two works were both written when
the composer was in his early thirties. In other words these
are early(ish) works. However, by 1954 we find a composer fully
attuned to his fate and style. You can hear this in the work
which opens the CD, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua.
Here one encounters the language of Villa-Lobos, especially
in the fantasy-like formal designs of the Chõros. Castellanos
also touches on the powerfully rhythmic world of the Mexican
Silvestre Revueltas, with its fantastic syncopations. These
figures have been assimilated into a more local voice. This
is the composer’s most performed work and one can see why. It
is exuberant and brash but also has several contrasting romantic
melodies. A popular melody of the time is hinted at, as is a
Venezuelan waltz tune and the medieval Lauda Sion plainchant
melody towards the end. Why? Because the piece “pays homage
to the construction of a church in Guatire near Caracas where
Vicente Sojo was born”.
The recording is close and vivid and all of the subtle orchestral
moments are also clearly audible.
I am hoping that Naxos will pursue a follow-up disc of Castellanos’
later works or some of his choral pieces. It’s a pity that Naxos
doesn’t offer a slightly longer playing time but meanwhile buy
this anyway and have some fun.