Tangos have of course featured strongly in many films from the days of Rudolf Valentino and George Raft to melodramas like Assassination Tango.. And, of course, pre-eminent amongst tango composers is Astor Piazzolla.
But Piazzolla and tango - without the bandoneon? Without that most quintessential of tango instruments how could that be? No problem apparently. Knowing that bandoneon players are very hard to find in England, El Ultimo Tango’s bassist, Mark Goodchild, who has impressive arranging skills, came up with the idea of combining flute and saxophone to recreate the bandoneon timbre with the added advantage of creating new colours too. El Ultimo Tango a small group of mainly City ofBirmingham Symphony Orchestraplayers formed to specialise in Argentinian music and the music of Astor Piazzolla in particular. Cellist, Eduardo Vassallo has personal memories of Astor Piazzolla and his father played with the composer in Buenos Aires.
El Ultimo Tango clearly greatly empathise with Piazzolla’s vibrant, fiery tango music. They play with passion and joie de vivre. There is a feeling of freshness and spontaneity about it all – the frequent glissandos are witty or bitingly sardonic. The opening Libertango’s feeling of wild sensual abandon is palpable, the music sparkles, lifts the spirits. Then in Decarissimo, the piano sets an initial mood of languor, dreaming sultrily before the flute pushes the music into faster, perky rhythms, the ensemble embellishing the material and the saxophone playing blues. Preludio is a dirge, the music raw and anguished, darkly funereal. Bragatissimo’s solo cello opening with treading bass ostinato sustains a melancholy mood for much of its length before the tempo quickens and the music coarsens and grows increasingly angry and defiant. Buenos Aires Hora Cero is sardonic and brutal, suggestive perhaps of sexual cruelty or of drug-driven exhaustion, the glissandi sound particularly menacing. Lunfardo is more vivacious and uninhibited with some extraordinarily wild punctuations until the cello introduces a waltz rhythm to establish order and sensitivity.
Best known perhaps, is Adios Nonino The piano meanders beguilingly, its arpeggios and ripples very impressionistic, very Debussy-like, the mood eldritch and sylvan before the famous melody enters quietly, growing in fervour. The theme is then taken up by the cello, then the flute and saxophone before variations turn classical forms to jazz and tango rhythms.
But for me the highlight of this disc is unquestionably Oblivion scored for cello and piano only. Its beauty haunts. Once again the opening piano solo is quite impressionistic with a hint of Rachmaninov, a hint that is broadened by the cello’s song. The tango rhythm is there but muted and sweetened. This lovely track is worth the price of the CD alone.
The concert ends with Piazzolla’s four-movement tango suite Four Seasons: Spring, bouncy and energetic and full of zip and colour but with melancholy cello and wistful flute episodes seemingly indicating Spring it is over all too soon while ‘Summer’ suggests languid, drooping days and there is a touch of the blues. ‘Autumn’ sounds a note of loss and regret but the season of mellow fruitfulness also has wilder fruitier jazz moments. Finally ‘Winter’ is initially hesitant and cool, then briefly passionate before jagged tango rhythms are smoothed to dreamy romanticism as the movement ends, surprisingly, in classical baroque purity.
The booklet notes are informative about the players and the origins and character of the tango but there is very little or no detail about the music.
El Ultimo Tango presents Piazzolla sans bandoneon but with added colour. Tango music played with fervour and sensitivity. And for sheer bliss taste Oblivion - would that it be like this.