“Crossover” is a term that makes most serious musicians of any
genre shudder with dread. With its implications of dumbed-down
tunes packaged into easy-listening albums performed by air-brushed
performers of modest ability it smacks of record companies massaging
dwindling music sales figures with high volume sales. There is
one composer/performer who totally transcends this limited remit
– the extraordinary Ástor Piazzolla. A
potted biography is quite remarkable and points to his unique
talent from an early age. Born in Buenos Aires, a virtuoso on
the bandoneon - a fiendishly hard-to-play kind of accordion -
by thirteen, he later studied with Ginastera classical composition.
Ginastera recommended he enter a composing competition; part of
the prize was to go to Paris and study in turn with Nadia Boulanger.
It was she who encouraged him to focus his compositional skills
on tango and jazz – he wrote in a memoir; “…she asked me to
play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes,
took my hand and told me: "You idiot, that's Piazzolla!"
And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and
sent it to hell in two seconds.” His compositional and performing
life was then dedicated to the creation of Tango Nuevo.
Much to the consternation of tango traditionalists in Argentina
this represented a fusion between tango and jazz. Add to that
the classical rigour of form, dissonant harmony, and passages
of great fugal and contrapuntal complexity. It can be seen that
his music really is a fusion of styles – genuinely crossing over
the boundaries between genres. Many of his compositions were written
for his preferred tango band line-up of bandoneon, violin, electric
guitar, piano and bass. They follow a similar structure of fast-slow-fast-slow-coda.
Over time, and as he became more famous, this seemingly limited
form and instrumentation was developed by collaborations with
other musicians as well as writing for the opera house and symphony
If you have never
heard any Piazzolla I really do recommend most strongly that
you seek it out. His is a unique sound-world, vibrant, exultant
and sensual, rhythmically exhilarating and moving. Is this
the disc the place to start? Well, yes and no. Wearing my
purist’s hat I have to sombrely point out that all of the
music presented here are arrangements of Piazzolla, crucially
missing the very instrument - the unique sound of the bandoneon
- that is at the heart of his music. It could be argued this
is a cross-over album of a cross-over composer. But the more
you look at the Piazzolla discography the more you realise
that much of his music is presented in arrangements to some
degree or another and that this CD contains playing and arranging
of the very highest order. Piazzolla himself was not averse
to re-arranging a piece to accommodate circumstance. La
Muerte del Angel I first heard on the album The New
Tango – Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton where it is
arranged to include Burton’s remarkable jazz vibraphone playing.
Likewise there is a Chandos disc where the bandoneon part
of the concerto he wrote for the instrument is transcribed
for accordion. So perhaps the charge of “its an arrangement”
is irrelevant – the more I listened here the more I thought
that. But, and it is a big but, a piano quintet is NOT a tango
band and no matter how intimately they have researched the
idiom and how brilliantly they play - which they do - I miss
the earthy wildness that to my ear embodies those authentic
performances. Piazzolla uses muscular striding bass lines
doubled in the piano and double-bass, with percussive interjections
from the bandoneon combined with riotously virtuosic violin
lines full of whipping glissandi and cricket-like scrapings.
As much of this original colour is transferred as possible
but the overall effect is tempered and I would have to say
lessened. This is not music viewed through a distorting
lens, rather a softening one.
I am being rather
churlish here too. The quality of the playing on this disc
is absolutely superb and it is helped by an excellent recording.
It is quite close and analytical in an almost jazz-studio
style. It is only when you turn back to the original recordings
that you become aware of that last ounce of authenticity that’s
missing. Which is why I am in two minds about this being a
good starting point to enter Piazzolla’s musical world. If
the idea of jazz/tango fusion appeals go straight to either
the album I’ve mentioned above or his seminal Tango: Zero
Hour which Piazzolla himself considered his career high.
That album features the tracks Milonga del Angel and
Concierto para Quinteto recorded here. However, this
disc provides an excellent overview of music written in various
periods of Piazzolla’s life. One absolutely head-scratching
question though: since Piazzolla did write at least
one piece Tango for Four specifically for string quartet
why on earth was it not included here? The disc is only modestly
filled. If his more extended orchestral work is of interest
try Tangazo on Decca (468 568-2) recorded by Charles
Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A third version
of the ubiquitous Milonga del Angel appears here too.
Beautifully recorded but also drifting away from the compellingly
To sum up the
current CD; not really a first stop for the Piazzolla newbie.
Too much of the original texture is changed, and not really
for the dedicated follower either. Excellent though the disc
is in every department I did not feel it revealed to me elements
of this music missing elsewhere. That being said, it is a
disc I will happily to return to for pure pleasure.
A great album
prepared and played with insight and care if lacking the last
drop of deliriously authentic passion.
see also Review
by Jens Laursen