About this Recording
8.572331 - PIAZZOLLA, A.: Best Tangos (Delle-Vigne)
English 

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)

 

Astor Piazzolla, born at Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1921, emigrated with his family to New York in 1924. As a child prodigy he learned to play the bandoneón, the square-built button accordion or concertina, popular in Argentinian tango orchestras. When in 1933 Carlos Gardel (1890–1935), the greatest of all tango singers, came to the United States, Piazzolla became Gardel’s translator and occasional accompanist. Gardel wanted the boy to tour with him as an assistant, but Piazzolla’s father refused to let him go. Tragically, Gardel was killed at Medellín airfield, Colombia on 4 June 1935, along with José Corpas Moreno, who had gone in Piazzolla’s place.

Piazzolla returned to Argentina in 1937, eventually joining Aníbal Troilo’s tango band in Buenos Aires. but he yearned to develop the tango into a more profoundly expressive form where the music was ‘for the ear as well as for the feet’, an attitude at first resented among the leading tango practitioners. On the recommendation of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, Piazzolla began composition lessons with Alberto Ginastera. Following the completion of his Buenos Aires symphony in the early 1950s, he was awarded a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris for four months. This eminent teacher encouraged him to develop artistically through the tango rather than devote himself to progressive European genres of the era.

On Piazzolla’s return to Buenos Aires, he formed various ensembles, including the Octeto Buenos Aires and the Quinteto Nuevo Tango, which performed at his club, the Jamaica. In 1958 he lived for a while in Manhattan where he assimilated more jazz elements into his music and broadened the scope of his work. Becoming slightly disillusioned, as he had not yet broken through to the American public at large, Piazzolla and his family went back to Argentina in 1960, but his fervent advocacy of a new order of tango continued with constant foreign tours. By the 1980s Piazzolla’s music was famous world-wide and, moreover, began to find acceptance in his native Argentina, where his progressive concepts had at first been vigorously resisted. Piazzolla died in Buenos Aires in 1992, and was described in the New York Times as ‘the modern master of tango music’. A British periodical commented that ‘Piazzolla’s tangos will live as long as music is appreciated for its ability to convey human emotions’.

Piazzolla’s prolific range of compositions, some 750 in all, incorporate diverse influences such as European traditions, jazz and popular elements, while retaining at their core an essential and unmistakable Argentinian identity. His works include theatre music, film scores, concertos, chamber music, and songs, as well as many instrumental pieces available in a variety of solo arrangements for piano, bandoneón, and guitar.

The history of the tango extends back to the nineteenth century having strong associations with both the Andalusian tango and the Cuban habanera. In particular the tango found a fertile home among the slums of Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century, where a vigorous tradition became established. Later, owing to the influence of tango masters such as Carlos Gardel, the dance became esteemed throughout the world though sometimes considered risqué or even immoral by the authorities. Astor Piazzolla’s concept of the tango was to progress beyond the dance form towards a more developed medium conveying fine elements of pathos and passion, longing and sensibility.

Verano porteño (Summer in Buenos Aires) was one of four pieces originally written for Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz’s play Melenita de oro (The Golden Mop of Hair), staged in 1965. It became the first of his Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Buenos Aires Seasons), which, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, express the changing moods of the year. The suite was first recorded during a live show by Piazzolla’s Quintet in May, 1970. Otoño porteño (Autumn in Buenos Aires), Invierno porteño (Winter in Buenos Aires), and Primavera porteña (Spring in Buenos Aires) provide a vivid sequence, each movement possessing its own colourful themes.

Balada para un loco (Ballad for a Madman) is the setting of a song by Horacio Ferrer, the Uruguayan poet and tango historian, composed towards the end of the 1960s. The song begins,

Ya sé que estoy piantao, piantao, piantao,
No ves que va la luna rodando por Callao;
(I know I am mad, mad, mad,
Do you not see the moon rolling along the Avenida Callao?)

The work was entered for a competition in the First Latin American Festival of Song and Dance in November 1969, causing great controversy for its unconventional approach. It was awarded only second prize, the winner being the more traditional Hasta el último tren (Until the Last Train) by Jorge Sobral. Balada para un loco, however, was an immediate success, its initial recording selling some 150,000 copies by March 1970.

The tango-milonga is a strictly instrumental form with a distinct rhythmic character, much performed by popular orchestras in Buenos Aires. Piazzolla explores the tango’s more introspective aspects and also incorporates a religious element. Though the works were originally written separately and frequently performed as individual pieces, the Angel Suite comprises Milonga del ángel (composed 1962), La muerte del ángel (The Death of the Angel) (1962), and Resurreción del ángel (Resurrection of the Angel) (1965), in the form of a virtual triptych. The three movements express respectively the gentle, poignant nature of the angel, the fury and passion of death with aspects of serenity, and a final meditative mood contemplating triumphant resurrection.

Chau Paris (Bye-bye Paris) was written following Piazzolla’s period of study with Nadia Boulanger and dedicated to his friend, Édouard Pécourt, the owner of a record shop on the Rue du Louvre. At the time he signed lucrative contracts with French companies agreeing to compose and record tangos, writing no fewer than sixteen over the next two months.

Alfredo Gobbi (1912–1965), composer, violinist, arranger and bandleader, was one of the early twentieth century pioneers of the tango. He made his professional début at the age of thirteen and later played in bands with the leading tangueros of the epoch. He founded his own band in 1942 and made a number of recordings for RCAVictor from 1947 onwards, composing many new works of his own and offering fresh perspectives on traditional favourites. Piazzolla regarded Gobbi as ‘the father of all who have done the modern tango’ and his Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi (Portrait of Alfredo Gobbi) is an affectionate tribute to the older maestro.

Adiós Nonino (Farewell Nonino) is an elegiac piece written following the death of the composer’s father, Vicente, in October 1959. Piazzolla regarded this as the finest tune he ever composed, and performed it many hundreds of times in at least twenty arrangements. In a similar vein, La misma pena (The Same Sadness) is a deeply melancholic work uniting the tango’s capability of exploring nostalgia and tragic feeling with the composer’s own emotional predicament.

Another ‘Parisian tango’ from the 1950s was Picasso, a homage to the great painter. Piazzolla sent the artist one of his recordings but was disappointed when the authorisation to use the name in this title was forwarded to him by a secretary rather than by a letter from Picasso himself.

Guardia nueva (New Guard) demonstrates Piazzolla’s delight in pushing the frontiers of tango into unprecedented artistic areas, stimulating the listener to awareness of further musical possibilities. Finally, Sentido único (One-Way Street), offers a jocular tribute to the Parisian one-way street system, an example of the composer’s renowned sense of humour.


Graham Wade

Grateful acknowledgement in the compilation of these notes is due to Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi and Simon Collier, published by Oxford University Press, 2000.


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