Recording of April 2010: Piazzolla and Beyond

London Concertante: Piazzolla and Beyond
Works by Astor Piazzolla, David Gordon, Adam Summerhayes
London Concertante; Adam Summerhayes, dir.
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907491 (CD). 2009. Chris Grist, prod.; Matt Butler, eng. DDD. TT: 52:01
Performance ****
Sonics ****

"How are we even to have a shallow grasp on the complexities of tango, here in northern Europe, decades after its golden age, that we might attempt even a revision of the work of that great and visionary revisionist, Piazzolla?"

Good question. It's one, posed in the liner notes of the aptly titled Piazzolla and Beyond, that violinist Adam Summerhayes, leader of the 9-member string ensemble London Concertante, and pianist David Gordon, try to answer over and over again on this disc of rearrangements and reimaginings of the music of the great composer, bandoneón player, and Argentinean cultural force, Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992).

Piazzolla is often said to be the man who took tango out of the clubs and into the concert hall. Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, to Italian immigrant parents, Piazzolla spent his boyhood in New York City, where he took piano lessons and became a fan of J.S. Bach, as well as of American big-band jazz. Returning to Argentina in 1955, he played in tango bands in nightclubs while sharpening his knowledge of music theory by studying jazz and classical music. A grant to study in France with composer and music teacher Nadia Boulanger is most often cited as the event that turned Piazzolla toward making the tango and his instrument—the bandoneón, a large button concertina related to the accordion—respected parts of the music of the world.

He built a varied performing career, and a body of original compositions that ultimately made him one of the most important figures in the musical history of South America, if not the world. Piazzolla's Nuevo Tangos embrace influences from jazz and classical music; he established a new vocabulary for the tango's inherently vital rhythms, made extensive use of counterpoint, and added surprising amounts of dissonance and new harmonies, while always remaining open and unafraid to experiment. The way his bands improvised, each instrumentalist asserting his or her voice, came directly from the traditions of small-group jazz.

His open mind and concept of musical freedom often put Piazzolla at odds with those, particularly in Argentina, who felt his ideas and ambitions were messing too much with convention, and thus violating a hallowed folk tradition of music for the common man. One of his greatest innovations was in expanding the tango into extended musical forms. His multi-movement tango-based compositions inevitably rank low among his works for his detractors, but high for aficionados. In Piazzolla's compositional vision, the tango left the dance floor to become more of a chamber music in the western classical sense—which leads directly to Piazzolla and Beyond.

The single quality that probably turned more traditional tango fans against Piazzolla than any other was his way of toning down the exuberance and adding more sepia tones, in the process giving the music a moodier, more reflective hue. This quality pervades the opening number of this disc, Piazzolla's famous Libertango (1974), a dramatic performance that's stunning for its rhythmic drive generated only by the strings, sans drums. Rarely have violins sounded so like percussion. One of Piazzolla's multi-movement works, the beautiful and bittersweet Angel Suite (1965/1962), follows, and here is the Piazzolla who must have driven tango traditionalists to the edge of sanity. Again the violins and violas, here taking on the role of one of Piazzolla's ensembles (generally, some combination of bandoneón, violin, guitar, piano, electric bass, and drums), generate a very credible amount of rhythmic energy, while Summerhayes and various combinations of players take on Piazzolla's bandoneón part. For longtime Piazzolla fans, it's fascinating stuff—at any minute you expect his instantly recognizable instrumental voice to come swirling into the mix. Speaking of mixes, the recording is peerless, as is usually the case with a production led by Harmonia Mundi principal Robina Young: Natural, with abundant dynamic range and every instrument beautifully articulated, this is modern recording at its finest.

As is usually the case with this kind of project, Summerhayes and Gordon could not resist the temptation to try out a few of their own Piazzolla-like compositions—a prospect that can often sink a project like this—but happily, their own contributions are tasteful homages that endeavor to build further on Piazzolla's compositional urges. Gordon's Augmented Tango, which his liner notes say has the "ruthless and reckless energy" of Piazzolla's compositions and a "degree of obsessiveness perhaps not found even in the master's work," is jumpy and relentless throughout its seven minutes, piano and fiddles sparring throughout. The pair's collaboration, Milonga Bourgeois, is equally urgent, using repeated melodic figures played at accelerating tempos to generate climaxes before lazily descending in the kind of enchanting melody Piazzolla excelled at, both in composing and playing.

Most critically, the strings of the London Concertante dig in throughout this disc, raising, if not the exact sound of Piazzolla's bandoneón, then certainly its requisite spirit. Tangos, Nuevo or viejo, are always about passion—unlikely as it may sound on paper, these string arrangements and energetic performances have a simmering, authentic gusto. ¡Olé!Robert Baird