, August 2011
Piazzolla’s music is all about passion. And what other instruments can convey passion better than a trumpet or a violin? Trumpet is the dark side of it: its raw force, its violence—but also its rapture and ecstasy. The violin is the sublime, tender, sensual voice of passion. Maybe that’s why Piazzolla’s music yielded surprisingly well to the arrangements that Donato De Sena made for his Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussion della Toscana—an ensemble of brass and percussion. In half of the numbers the violin was added as the leading instrument, with an excellent contribution from violinist Andrea Tacchi.
The tide of recordings of Piazzolla’s music does not retreat. Many of these discs repeat more or less the same program with minor variations: Piazzolla already has his “standards”. Some of the usual suspects can be found here as well—Libertango, Oblivion, La Muerte del Angel, all of The Four Seasons and one movement from Histoire du Tango. But Piazzolla’s output was huge, some say over 700 works. So, much more first-class music can be rediscovered and there’s some of it here—thank you!
The first three numbers form kind of mini-suite. Violentango is massive and intense. It starts as a march and culminates in an expressive, soaring trumpet solo with an “escape” tune to die for. A trumpet seems an excellent choice to vocalize such ardent feelings. There is something of the Seventies in the arrangement. Amelitango has a similar jazzy syncopation and is not very different in mood. This piece would probably benefit from a more relaxed, less pressed presentation. The arrangement emphasizes the quasi-minimalistic traits—which, considering the instruments, renders it rather monotonous. Like much minimalist music, it has its appeal, but might start to annoy. A simple test—would I like to listen to it twice in a row? No! The brass timbre is probably too warm in the beginning of Tristango—and so it appears more nostalgic than sad; the sadness crawls on you towards the desolate ending. This composition has several episodes, and the masterful brass arrangement with rich percussion infuses it with Handelian grandeur. It is almost a passacaglia on a descending bass, with the same inexorable movement.
The violin is in the limelight again in The Seasons of Buenos Aires. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons were woven in, too extensively for my taste. Note that this is not the arrangement that Desyatnikov produced for Kremer—that one also injected some Vivaldi, but in a subtler way. The booklet should have said that the Vivaldi comes from the arranger, not from Piazzolla, so as not to give the unprepared listener a wrong conception that the work began as a collage. Mixing the Seasons by Piazzolla and Vivaldi to various degrees is an interesting experiment, but it is repeated too often these days. Besides Kremer, who started it all, we have Tianwa Yang on another Naxos disc, Lara St. John, Daniel Rowland, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Jonathan Morton, Pavel Šporcl, Ara Malikian, David Grimal and so on—enough, thank you, we’ve got the idea! Yes, both sets were named after seasons but…honestly, that’s where the similarity ends. Such crossbreeding, especially when Vivaldi comes in such big chunks as here, does a disservice to both composers. The result sounds unnatural and irritating.
Since Piazzolla did not create these four pieces as a cycle, everyone chooses their starting point where they want. I cannot be sure about De Sena’s intentions, but from what I hear the parts were deliberately shaped as Allegro (Summer), Scherzo (Autumn), slow movement (Winter) and Finale (Spring). This evidently required some changes in their character, for better or worse, but the cycle acquired a nice overall arch, whereas in other interpretations it often looks like just four tangos put together. Also, transitions between the parts are smart. Summer receives rather bombastic clothes, but it wears them surprisingly well. The violinist Andrea Tacchi shows himself a master of Piazzolla’s “effects”. Autumn got quite dismembered and comes across as a mix, not a single cogent piece. It became harsh and lost the composer’s signature charm. It is too busy—an Autumn in New York, not Buenos Aires. On the other hand, Winter is strong and beautiful, and its heart-cutting melody bleeds and throbs with noble pain. If I had to select just one representative piece by Piazzolla, I would probably go no further than this one: viscous, dark, but open to the Heavens. Listening to Spring, I came to understand my problem with this disc: it’s all too intense. I want to have a break from the battering at my eardrums, the pressure on my brain, the plucking at the strings of my veins. Nevertheless, Tacchi is very impressive in the ending of Spring, and his technique fits Piazzolla’s music perfectly.
Mister Tango is a tall dark stranger. From Pink Panther-like beginning we move through several moods and themes. The face of this tango shows family resemblance to the pasodoble. The two vibrant trumpets excellently convey the Spanish character of the central episode. The arrangement is once again somewhat minimalistic, but the main trait of this music—its constant movement forward, like a slow rolling downhill—is expressed very well. Novitango follows after this piece and sounds too similar. Maybe De Sena intended them to merge.
Bordel is a brief recess. Piazzolla looks back to the good old tango of the beginning of the century. The coquettish violin sets the tone, light and somewhat frivolous. The arrangement is remarkably light and airy. La Muerte del Ángel has great drive and dark, violent rhythm, but you would never guess that the Angel is dying. The fast tempo adopted by the musicians makes this music sound less serious. Probably the most interesting discovery on this disc is Meditango. It starts as another fast business-day march of anxiety. Then, like evening descending, the movement slows. The music becomes smoky, nocturnal, mesmerizing and meditative. This is philosophy through dance, and the trumpet solo is breathtaking.
The last three numbers are joined into another mini-suite, or even into a single tripartite work, to unforgettable effect. Ave Maria is sublime and tender, like an apparition of celestial beauty. It flows into Oblivion, one of Piazzolla’s most poignant melodies, which will make you stop what you were doing and close your eyes. The arrangement again smells of the Seventies, especially in the middle section: one would think Paul Mauriat had done it. Still, it rather fits this beautiful music. Very naturally, we enter Libertango. Here it is short and no-nonsense: lacking surprises but effective. Like a thermo-electric coupling, the electricity flows between the cold violin and the warm brass.
I was afraid that this album would be unvaried and monotonous, due to the nature of the ensemble. It turned out to be well planned and well executed. The recorded sound is clear and spacious. The arranger did a lot of work; he is resourceful and shows great mastery of counterpoint. The musicians play with healthy expressivity. The liner-note is interesting and informative. Definitely, this disc can be commended to seasoned fans as well as novices, though it will be more appreciated by those who are already accustomed to the innate impact of the brass ensemble.