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. 19-28 July 2010, Salón Italia, Centro Italiano-Venezolano, Caracas, Venezuela
NAXOS 8.572681 [56:18]
Evencio Castellanos’ brilliant Santa Cruz de Pacairigua first reached global popularity only a few years ago, when it was taken up by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel and his band recorded it on their CD Fiesta and took it on tour as a showpiece; when I saw them perform it live the audience went absolutely wild. But full CDs dedicated to Castellanos have been non-existent, until now.
First up is Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (1954). It’s the only one of Castellanos’ works that’s even slightly well-known, but it is a fully-fledged masterpiece. The best comparison might be An American in Paris: jaunty, broadly merry, with an episodic feel that is in fact deceptive. Like An American in Paris, Santa Cruz is in fact particularly well-developed, with most of the material deriving from the very first solo trumpet line (0:01-0:06); again like the Gershwin work, there are central slow episodes of more romantic character - the strings send up chills at 7:50. In these slower moments, Castellanos begins setting the stage for his grand finale: first, insistent drumming underlines the introduction of a proper hymnal tune, representing the actual church denoted in the title; then a wild, joyous dance erupts. By the end, the unbridled revelry will meet the very bridled hymn tune in a union that’s absolutely thrilling.
After this nearly anything would be a letdown. El Río de las Siete Estrellas (1946) has the added handicap of being episodic: the seven stars in the title are represented by the celesta, and they introduce brief musical depictions of moments in Venezuelan history. But it doesn’t really feel disconnected, because of the reprised transitional material and because the music builds very satisfyingly from a flute-dominated nocturne at the beginning to more clearly folk-influenced music, with splendorous brass and cymbal crashes by the end.
Rounding out this (all-too-short) selection is the Suite Avileña (1947), five movements based on pre-existing Venezuelan folk melodies, including the chants of flower vendors, children’s nursery rhymes, and even - briefly, in a fourth movement dance episode - ‘Adeste Fideles’. The third, ‘Nocturno,’ is an especially striking combination of serenade on the cuatro (a Caribbean variant on the guitar), mournful noises from the woodwinds, and creepy night-time effects by the celesta.
Have I emphasized enough how excellent this music is? It’s not just good ‘nationalistic’ music; it’s plain old good music. Suite Avileña is an enchanting set of short works, and Santa Cruz ought to be a repertory staple of orchestras anywhere, skillfully crafted and intelligently developed underneath a thick, brash layer of dance rhythms and sheer orchestral exuberance. Evencio Castellanos once performed in and conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela (as did his brother Gonzalo), and he also served on the orchestra’s board of directors and founded an experimental ensemble within it. The band’s credentials are peerless, as are those of Jan Wagner, who has worked with the ensemble for 16 years, tirelessly promoting and recording Venezuelan music for a number of record labels. In the opening pages of Santa Cruz the orchestra may lack Dudamel’s momentum on Deutsche Grammophon, but from 1:54 on everything is alive and thrilling. The orchestra has all the chops, character, and panache required, although I’d like to hear the Chicago Symphony playing this music. The recording is generally good, with an excellent sound stage, but the trumpet solo which opens the disc seems to stress the microphones a bit, and you’ll need to crank up the sound to really wallow in the Castellanos sound.
Wagner and the orchestra are signed up for two more Naxos discs of Venezuelan music, and my question is: why only two?
Not just good ‘nationalist’ music but darn good music, full stop. A relief to see Castellanos’ orchestral exuberance finally getting a major CD release.