Evencio CASTELLANOS (1915-1984)
Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (1954) [17.02]
El Río de las Siete Estrellas (1946) [14.55]
Suite Avileña (1947) [24.26]
Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela/Jan Wagner
rec. Salón Italia, Centro Italiano-Venezolano, Caracas, Venezuela, 19-28 July 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572681 [56.23]
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 American series.
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.
  Gary Higginson
Buy this and have some fun.