January 26, 2012

(+++) EMBRACING ETHNICITY

Evencio Castellanos: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua; El Río de las Siete Estrellas; Suite Avileña. Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela conducted by Jan Wagner. Naxos. $9.99.

Francisco Mignone: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Three Spanish Songs; Two Essays for String Quartet; Seresta No. 2 for Double String Quartet; Barcarola; Minueto from the Opera “O Contratador de Diamantes.” Cuarteto Latinoamericano (Saul Bitran and Aron Bitran, violins; Javier Montiel, viola; Alvaro Bitran, cello). Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Dowland in Dublin. Michael Slattery, tenor; ensemble La Nef. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

     These are CDs focused on particular regions or countries, featuring interpretations by musicians steeped in the background and culture that produced the music they perform. The music itself tends to be quite worthy and frequently interesting, although not necessarily gripping for listeners without some sort of connection to the places where it originates. The discs do, though, give interested listeners a chance to sample some well-thought-out pieces that are outside the standard classical repertoire. The works of Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984), for example, are redolent of Venezuela: Castellanos was one of that nation’s first composers to stake out overtly nationalistic territory in his music. Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (1954) is a musical tribute to the construction of a church near Caracas, attractively combining a medieval Venezuelan carol with elements drawn from popular dances – it is easy to see why this is one of the composer’s most-performed works. El Río de las Siete Estrellas (1946: “The River of Seven Stars”) refers to the Orinoco and was inspired by a poem. Castellanos intended it as a recapitulation of events in Venezuelan history, leading up to the country’s independence in 1821. The references will be obscure to listeners not already familiar with the nation’s background, but this work too is carefully constructed and well orchestrated. Suite Avileña (1947) is even more interesting: its five movements relate to the coastal mountain El Ávila, but listeners need not know that to enjoy the well-developed contrasts among the movements and the unusual use of Venezuelan folk instruments, including maracas and the cuatro (a four-stringed guitar). The themes of Suite Avileña are drawn from sources as disparate as popular songs and Christmas carols, giving the work a pleasantly varied set of sounds. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela under Jan Wagner plays all the music idiomatically and with understanding and enthusiasm.

     Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s enthusiasm in a new CD is for chamber music of Brazil, specifically that of Francisco Mignone (1897-1986); indeed, the CD bears the title Brasileiro, with the composer’s name comparatively downplayed. Mignone is not as well known internationally as Heitor Villa-Lobos, but he is often mentioned as being nearly at Villa-Lobos’ level of skill and prominence. His works show considerable ability in multiple forms: opera, ballet, orchestral and choral works, solo songs and piano pieces – and chamber music. His String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, both of which date to 1957, are tightly knit works in the classical three-movement form, but both use some themes that are noticeably Brazilian – especially so in the second quartet. The Two Essays (1958) also showcase fine writing for the chamber ensemble, and interestingly subtle contrasts between movements whose tempos are not especially different (the first is Andante cantabile, the second Moderato). The other pieces on this CD are lighter and shorter. Seresta No. 2 (1956), in which Cuarteto Latinoamericano is joined by La Cantina String Quartet, is an interesting foray into double-quartet writing, with rich sound that retains the chamber-music qualities of Mignone’s single-quartet works. The remaining works here are earlier: Three Spanish Songs (1932) pleasantly evokes tunes that Brazilian audiences would know well, while Barcarola (1932) and Minueto (1924) are small, pleasant, self-contained pieces. Cuarteto Latinoamericano plays with exemplary tone and a strong feeling for the rhythms and structure of all this music – many listeners will enjoy discovering Mignone’s chamber works through this recording if they do not know his music already.

     The enjoyment will be more intellectual, and perhaps a bit forced, in Dowland in Dublin, a CD that considers the possibility that John Dowland (1563-1626), the great English Renaissance composer, might really have been Irish. It will be difficult for those not of English or Irish extraction to generate a great deal of concern about this possibility, but the performance ensemble La Nef uses it as the basis for this whole 17-track CD. With Michael Slattery contributing a light and pleasant tenor, the musicians of La Nef simplify Dowland’s frequently complex contrapuntal works to give them more of an Irish flavor; they also avoid the darker and more expressive pieces for which Dowland is best known and much admired, choosing instead to focus on his lighter pieces. This is a decidedly one-sided view of Dowland and a wholly inaccurate one, with a carefully chosen selection of his music put at the service of an attempt to stir the embers of an “origins” dispute that is not particularly significant except to anyone who may be directly involved in it. But if the rationale of Dowland in Dublin is shaky, the performance is not: everything is beautifully played and sung, and the delights of Dowland come through quite clearly even in the form in which they are given here. There is something faintly odd, if not wholly misguided, about Dowland in Dublin, but listeners who simply focus on the music will enjoy it – while hopefully understanding that there is a great deal more to this composer than is heard on this very pleasant but somewhat superficial CD.

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