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Bliss of Heaven – Music of the New World
Daniel Rojas (piano, arrangements)
Stephen Cuttriss (bandoneon: Navegar, Brother)
Baldini Quartet
Rec. Monteverdi Studios, Sáo Paulo, Brazil, date not provided
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00379 [57:05]

Daniel Rojas, the driving force behind this recording as composer, pianist, arranger and notes writer, was born in Chile and now resides in Australia. He has assembled an enticing collection of works to mix in with his own four compositions. We have one of Piazzolla’s best known nuevo tangos, three Latin American popular music classics and an early baroque choral work, which gives the album its title. These have been arranged (or composed) for piano and string quartet, with two of the Rojas works also including a part for bandoneon. The notes don’t indicate when the recording was made, but it is a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t 2020 or 2021.

It might have been tempting to open the CD with the Piazzolla, being the best-known work internationally. Instead, Rojas has chosen a tango of his own to begin. Even though it isn’t the most profound work on the disc, it does a good job in setting the stage and gives a hint of the really fine playing throughout.

Having got the listener into a South American mood, we get a very substantially expanded arrangement of Libertango, with even the addition of a Bach WTC prelude (acknowledged). If that sounds odd and ill-judged, it isn’t – this is by some distance the best arrangement of Libertango that I have heard.

If at this point, you are starting to think that is just another tango album, don’t. There is in fact only one more: Rojas’ Navegar, which is only recognisable as such by its rhythms, given its much slower tempo. It is the first on the disc to include the bandoneon, played by Australian Stephen Cuttriss. The mood is one of poignancy and reflection; there are no contrasting rapid sections, but that in itself helps to provide contrast with other works on the album. His other two compositions, Brother and Balada Idílica are similarly introspective, the former featuring a very atmospheric part for the bandoneon. Balada Idílica, the longest work on the disc, is quite nostalgic; Rojas cites Ennio Morricone as an influence. It begins with a simple undulating melody, which forms the basis for the various harmonic and melodic regions that he explores. The piano part is the dominant one, the strings essentially acting as intermittent support. I can imagine it being very popular on the UK’s ClassicFM radio station, which some will see as criticism masked as compliment, but that is not my intention. I find it relaxing but worthy of focussed attention; the eight-plus minutes go past very quickly. It is an interesting choice to close the album, bringing you down gently.

According to its Wikipedia page, Consuelo Velázquz’s Bésame Mucho (Kiss me much) is considered to be one of the best-known songs of the 20th century and the most recorded song in Spanish ever. Among notables to record it are Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Placido Domingo and André Rieu. I came to its arrangement here as an innocent, as I’m not sure whether I have ever heard it in any form. The mood of longing expressed in the lyrics is transferred very effectively to the instruments by Rojas, with each being given a turn to pour out an expression of love and loss.

The Mambo Influenciado of Cuban Jesús Valdés provides an upbeat and jazz-inflected interlude between the slow, sad works that precede and follow it, further evidence of the intelligence behind the programming of the works on the album. There are solo violin and viola parts in the middle which bring Bach to mind again, while the solo piano passage is very much in the jazz mould. This is another arrangement where seemingly disparate parts are melded together very skilfully by Rojas.

The work by Brazilian Zequinha de Abreu is regarded as one of the most famous works in the choro genre, a style that emerged in popular Brazilian music in the late 19th century. The title translates as “Sparrow in the Cornmeal”, so you can gather that this is not serious intense music: imagine samba meets ragtime. The other pop classic, Valicha, by Peruvian Miguel Ángel Hurtado Delgado has a similar light touch, and a definite Andean sway. It brought to mind the music of Chilean folk ensemble Inti-Illimani, which gained worldwide recognition in the 1980s and 90s when they recorded and toured with guitarist John Williams.

I have left what might be the most remarkable arrangement until last. Hanacpachap Cussicuinin (The Bliss (or Joy) of Heaven) is a sacred choral work that dates back to the early 1600s in Peru. Its composer is unknown, but there is one school of thought that proposes that he/she may have been indigenous. The arrangement starts and finishes with the original funereal music – no voices of course – the dull clanging in the lowest registers of the piano reminding one that it is a percussion instrument. The middle section comprises original music by Rojas based on the original harmonies, inspired by baroque counterpoint but with some modern twists. It is an exceptionally powerful and striking piece.

The performances are wonderful: Rojas’ piano playing has great verve and tenderness. The Sáo Paulo-based Baldini Quartet and Australian Cuttriss make for perfect partners across all the varying moods and styles. The sound quality is as good as I have heard in quite some time and the notes, written by Daniel Rojas (of course), tell you as much as you need to know.

Each time I listened to this CD, I heard more to enjoy, and that possibly is the best recommendation I can make for this. My only gripe is the run time of under an hour. I would have loved one or two of the Piazzolla Cuatro estaciónes porteñas to have been given the Rojas treatment. Hopefully, they might appear on a future Rojas album.

David Barker

Daniel ROJAS (b. 1974)
Sal Tango [4:39]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Libertango [7:29]
Consuelo VELÁZQUZ (1916-2005)
Bésame Mucho [7:28]
Jesús VALDÉS (b. 1941)
Mambo Influenciado [7:16]
Daniel ROJAS
Navegar [6:27]
Miguel Ángel HURTADO DELGADO (1922-1951)
Valicha [3:15]
Daniel ROJAS
Brother [4:49]
Hanacpachap Cussicuinin [4:51]
Zequinha de ABREU (1880-1935)
Tico Tico No Fubá [2:36]
Daniel ROJAS
Balada Idílica [8:17]

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