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Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Grand Tango!
Bando [3:27]
Otoño Porteño [5:59]
Le Grand Tango (arr. Christian Gerber) [12:14]
Soledad [7:55]
Tres Minutos con la Realidad [3:01]
Kicho [6:55]
Primavera Porteña [5:25]
Adios Nonino [8:41]
Tango para una Ciudad [5:58]
Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble (Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Christian Gerber (bandoneon), Ulrike Payer (piano), Rüdiger Ludwig (double bass))
rec. 18-20 May 2015, MotorMusic Studios, Mechelen, Belgium

At this date it should not be necessary to defend the right of a serious violinist such as Isabelle van Keulen to form an ensemble to play the music of Ástor Piazzolla. Piazzolla was classically trained, by Nadia Boulanger no less, and later by Ginastera. Initially he rejected the tango of his native Buenos Aires, composing in traditional European forms. Boulanger encouraged him to turn to the music of his heritage and to play the bandoneon, the traditional button accordion which is as essential to the Argentinean tango as is the cimbalom to Hungarian music.

Piazzolla himself said that his music was 10% tango and 90% modern classical music. Although he might be wrong about the proportions there is no doubt that he was a real composer who fully composed and scored his compositions and who required precision in their performance. Rough and splashy renderings just will not do. Furthermore, his tangos are not for dancing but for listening to. He explained that after about 1955 his fellow Argentineans turned to Elvis Presley and rock and roll and a new tango was born, ‘a tango to think about, a kind of chamber tango, in a way’.

Piazzolla’s most characteristic work was composed for a quintet, with himself on the bandoneon and a violin, piano, guitar or electric guitar and double bass. The bass, incidentally, is bowed as well as plucked. Isabelle van Keulen has almost replicated this: there is no mention of a guitar in her line-up and I do not hear one in the performances. However, the guitar is also not very prominent in Piazzolla’s own recordings so perhaps she judged it was not necessary. Although she gets the main credit on the sleeve and the ensemble was her project, she quite rightly does not steal the limelight but shares it with the others. A particular credit must go to Christian Gerber who plays the bandoneon with both a crisp rhythmic attack when it is called for and also a long-drawn out lyrical line. He can also match Isabelle van Keulen phrase for phrase.

The nine numbers on this disc are varied in style and length. They are mostly in ABA form with some of the longer ones in Rondo form with two episodes. However, Piazzolla never simply repeats, and he is fond of offering two very contrasting themes, one fast and one slow and then showing how they can be combined or merged. All the instruments get solo turns, including the double bass in Kicho. The title number is the longest on the disc, and was arranged by Christian Gerber for this ensemble from the cello and piano original, written for Rostropovich. However, if I was going to choose a single number from this disc it would be Tres Minutos con la Realidad. This is a brisk vigorous work with plenty of syncopation: almost a cubist tango if you like. You can compare it to Stravinsky’s Tango, to which it is arguably superior.

The ensemble plays with tremendous verve and attack. The rhythms crackle and bite. The slow passages are languorous in the extreme. This is real chamber music in which the players listen to one another. Isabelle van Keulen’s violin can soar above the ensemble when it should but she readily gives place to others. I was able to compare her ensemble’s version of Adiós Nonino with Piazzolla’s own and there was really very little difference, except that she enjoys a superior recording. Although the mood of all the numbers is melancholy, listening to them is not.

The recording was made in a studio which is not too close and we can hear all the players with a reasonable degree of resonance; I was listening on ordinary CD. The sleeve-note, in English and German, gives brief information about all the numbers although not in the order on the disc. I would have liked an explanation of why they did not include a guitar in the ensemble.

Piazzolla did record plentifully and obviously his own recordings will continue to have authority. However it is a mark of real music that it rewards performance by other than the composer and the original players. I greatly enjoyed this disc and I am now off to order van Keulen's earlier one, which was simply called Tango.

Stephen Barber



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