Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cultured Tangos

It may be that in musical retrospect, from a luxury of twenty-twenty critical hindsight, that Astor Piazzolla will be seen as having done in the twentieth century for the tango what Frederick Chopin did in the nineteenth for the waltz. It is perhaps already an accepted position. 

With the waltz, Chopin took an established popular form and stretched its boundaries so that what an audience might have expected to be a little ditty was recast to express heroism, sensuality, pride or even occasional doubt. The little dance tune then, in Chopin’s slender hands, became an elegant art form, highly expressive, utterly Romantic in its ability to convey human emotion. 

The tango represents an apparently different proposition. Already sensuous by definition, there are elements of the romantic towards which the tango need not aspire. If Romanticism placed individual emotional responses upon the pedestal of artistic expression, by the time the tango aspired to truly international currency in the twentieth century, there was no longer any need to worry about an artist’s right to make a personal statement. 

With the rise of serialism, neo-classicism and, later, minimalism, artistic mores were already, perhaps, heading in the opposite direction, towards a new espousal of rigour and structure. Emotion worn on the cuffs, like concepts plucked from the back of a matchbox, seemed to dominate cultural activities in the latter part of the century whilst, at the same time, Althusser and Derrida, allied with the populism of mass culture, seemed to suggest that there were no new statements, let alone discoveries, to be made. A spectral free-for-all ruled, where distinctions of quality were suddenly both particularistic and individual to the point of exclusion. (This, of course, is necessarily a paradox for people promoting a populist pop culture, since they aspire to mass consumption of a single artistic vision, a statement that by definition cannot be worth more than any other – even randomly selected statement. As a result, those who tend to deny a critic’s right to make value judgments must themselves assume that such judgments are perfectly valid in the marketplace. It’s a contradictory position, but an essential one for purveyors of pop, since they must continue to describe the form as popular, despite the fact that the vast majority of its products prove themselves to be anything but.) 

Post-modernists thus hailed the soap opera alongside Shakespeare, a logic that renders a Coca Cola advertisement the greatest film ever made by virtue of its viewer numbers. And then there was Piazzolla, an enigma par excellence. On the one hand Astor Piazzolla is the quintessential mid-twentieth century composer. Classically trained, a pupil of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, and inspired by the commercial and folk music of his own country, he could have slotted alongside Villa Lobos, Ponce, or even Martinu or Copeland as a contributor to the century’s neo-classical-folk music paradigm. 

But what he did was quite different. He devoted his compositional energies to recreating and reinventing a popular idiom that was thoroughly specific to his own country, Argentina. The form, of course, was the tango. What is more, Astor Piazzolla concentrated on performance via his own ensembles and he achieved considerable success, albeit local until near the end of his life, over a career that spanned fifty years. But he expressed himself on the bandoneon, a squeezebox that lends itself to staccato, slapping attack, an instrument not peculiar to Argentina, but perhaps only well known to Argentinians. He died in 1992, his Romantic heroism national at best. 

It was in the early 1990s that arrangements of Piazzolla’s music began to appear on “classical” programmes. By the time a figure as august as Daniel Barenboim recorded his Tangos Among Friends, Mi Buenos Aires Querido, in 1995, they were already becoming established in the repertoire. I personally have heard performances of Piazzolla’s music for full orchestra, string orchestra, chamber orchestra, various formats of chamber ensemble, piano trio, solo piano, solo harp, flute and guitar, guitar solo, violin and piano, string quartet, string trio and, of course, bandoneon. But it is surely the chamber group that best fits this music. 

There is always a toughness to its apparent sensuality that tends to be overstated by the large numbers of a full orchestra. Lack of volume, on the other hand, tends to stress the saccharine. And if you want to find an exquisite match between the music’s toughness and sensuality, its durability versus its novelty, there is surely no better experience than that provided by Camerata Virtuosi, a septet led by violinist Joaquin Palomares and featuring saxophonist Claude Delangle. Their recording of Piazzolla’s music features Joaquin Palomares’ superb arrangements that capture the music’s directness and beauty while preserving its toughness. 

A Camerata Virtuosi performance in the Auditori de la MediterrĂ nia, La Nucia in February 2008 featured all the pieces included in their recording of Piazzolla’s music. The group performed all four of the Seasons as a sextet with two violins, viola, cello, bass and piano. These pieces offer Joaquin Palomares a perfect vehicle to display his virtuoso violin playing which communicates the music’s line whilst at the same time decorates with highly effective jazz-like riffs. The rest of the pieces were performed by a septet in which Claude Delangle’s perfect soprano saxophone bent and teased its way through lambent legato lines.

It was playing of the highest quality. As on the recording, particularly successful were Oblivion and Milonga del Angel. Oblivion is the quintessential Piazzolla, a popular sing-along for the manic depressive perhaps, and not therefore a rarity. But the simplicity and understatement of the piece always works beautifully, even when played twice in the same concert, as in La Nucia. Milonga del Angel is a different kind of piece. Though superficially similar to Oblivion, it manages in its six minutes to develop through its binary form, so that different movements create different moods within the same material. A true highlight. Joaquin Palomares’ violin playing was, as always, more than elegant throughout and by the end the audience had experienced again the genius of Piazzolla courtesy of Palomares’ superb arrangements. Great music needs great interpreters, and Piazzolla’s has surely found one in Joaquin Palomares.

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