About this Recording
8.572271 - PIAZZOLLA, A.: Sinfonia Buenos Aires / Aconcagua / Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Binelli, Tianwa Yang, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992): Sinfonía Buenos Aires • Concerto for Bandoneón,
String Orchestra and Percussion, ‘Aconcagua’ • Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas


Astor Piazzolla’s name has become synonymous with tango, the signature dance of his native country, Argentina. Like Johann Strauss Jr. with regard to the waltz, Piazzolla transformed a popular idiom into sophisticated art music. This recording samples Piazzolla’s orchestral music, which represents just one facet of a complex, enormously gifted and prolific composer, performer and cultural icon whose influence continues to be felt across musical genres. We hear pieces ranging from his more classically oriented youthful efforts to mature masterworks in which he discovered a balance for his creative ambitions.

The tango is notoriously resistant to simple definitions. It contains within its hypnotic pulse an amalgam of diverse influences out of Europe and Africa, which were stirred together in the slums and brothels of Buenos Aires. Immigrant workers within that great port city in the late nineteenth century shaped the unmistakable rhythmic gestures, instrumentation and general attitude of the tango. It then crossed lines of class and milieu. But the tango has always been defined by paradox. It can be heard in the tension between a strict, tight rhythmic control and the sensuous freedom suggested by the melodic line. Melancholy is countered with menace, while genuine passion faces up to dissembling masquerade.

Tradition and innovation are another paradox inherent in the tango as Piazzolla came to experience it. The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, he moved with his parents to New York City, where he had a streetwise upbringing in Little Italy. As a young boy, Piazzolla had little interest in the music from back home until, at the age of eight, his tango-loving father bought him a bandoneón, or button accordion, at a pawn shop. The young Piazzolla fed his growing interest in classical music while becoming a prodigy on the instrument. In 1936, while he was still a teenager, the family returned to Argentina, and before he was twenty Piazzolla was already playing in Buenos Aires’ top-notch tango orchestra, led by Aníbal Troilo. Piazzolla acquired practical experience from countless nights in smoky clubs, but he already had a hankering for innovation—which proved to be a problem during this golden age of the cabaret tango. Its aficionados tended to be ultra-traditionalists, resistant to any tinkering with the now familiar formulas of tango culture (an irony, considering how dramatically the tango had evolved in just a few decades).

Inevitably, Piazzolla stirred up resentment when he began experimenting with new tango hybrids. His approach was iconoclastic and gave birth to a revolutionary musical movement, dubbed nuevo tango, which borrowed elements from jazz and classical music (from the Baroque to contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Bartók). Nuevo tango had greater complexity in terms of rhythmic patterns, harmonic vocabulary and contrapuntal textures. Piazzolla also began exploring longer forms suggested by classical music. Moreover, he bypassed the sacrosanct instrumentation of the standard tango orchestra and added electric sounds to the acoustic mix.

Piazzolla said that Buenos Aires taught him the secrets of the tango. He learned these “in a cold room in a boarding house, in the cabarets in the 1940s, in the cafés with balconies and orchestras, in the people of yesterday and today, in the sounds of the streets.” But in addition he singled out two great teachers from the classical world: Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera.

What he learned from Ginastera is particularly evident in Sinfonía Buenos Aires. In 1941 Piazzolla began a period of five years of private study with Ginastera, who lived across town in Buenos Aires, on the recommendation of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Ginastera, only five years older, would develop a reputation as one of Argentina’s leading twentieth-century composers. This is when Piazzolla began writing his most overtly classical pieces—on a parallel track with his tango orchestra pieces. This classical period culminated in Sinfonía Buenos Aires (originally titled Buenos Aires: Tres Movimientos Sinfonicos). Piazzolla’s score won a contest administered by Fabien Sevitzky (a nephew of Serge Koussevitzky and conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony), which provided a scholarship to study in France. Sevitzky flew to Buenos Aires to conduct the piece in August 1953. The audience included a small but vocal group of opponents who shouted disapproval, which Sevitzky found encouraging. “I have never seen such fistfights at a première,” the composer recalls him saying, “but relax, this is all publicity.”

The three-movement symphonic triptych displays an impressive sense of confidence in wielding such a large ensemble, including an important part for the bandoneón. It begins with bold, brassy gestures that sound generic at first, but Piazzolla’s personality soon emerges in the tango rhythms and flourishes that become part of the fabric. His taste for surprising percussive effects also adds color. Although the musical argument is often episodic, fitfully changing topic, the imaginative interplay of textures bears out Piazzolla’s claim that Ginastera made orchestration “one of my strong points.”

The second movement makes wonderful use of soloistic writing to paint its doleful moods. Piazzolla has clearly picked up some lessons from the Russian classics, too. A delicious clarinet solo provides entrée to a tango-driven episode, which is then whipped into a frenzy of Tchaikovskian emotion. Another tempestuous climax features prolonged trills out of The Rite of Spring. The music returns to its sad, stepwise melody before Piazzolla concludes his symphonic vision of Buenos Aires with a Presto marcato of thrilling, fiery momentum. Here he is most successful at integrating the rhythmic elements that predominate in the work, bringing it to a close with a convincingly sustained climax.

Such all-out symphonism turned out to be a dead end for Piazzolla. His year of study with Nadia Boulanger in 1954 led to an epiphany. The legendary composition teacher knew only of her new student’s classical ambitions, and she judged the pieces he had shown her well constructed but somehow disguising his true spirit. Piazzolla assumed his tanguero background would be dismissed as trivial. Quite the contrary. He played one of his tangos, Triunfal, for her on the piano. “When I had finished,” the composer recalls, “she said, ‘Astor, this is beautiful. Here is the true Piazzolla—do not ever leave him.’ It was the great revelation of my musical life.”

Boulanger marked a turning point for Piazzolla. The validity of his creative engagement with the tango had been reaffirmed, and it became the basis for his subsequent classical efforts—rather than an element that had to be disguised by overstated classical rhetoric. The bandoneón represents Piazzolla as the protagonist in his own music, much as the piano did for Mozart or Beethoven. He cultivated a distinctive style of playing the instrument as a member of his famous quintet and other ensembles.

A member of the concertina family, the bandoneón betrays yet another of the tango’s paradoxes. It was invented in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century as a humble squeeze-box, a makeshift organ used for worship, but it eventually found its way to the Buenos Aires docks and brothels as part of the emerging tango culture. The bandoneón was more than a musical instrument for Piazzolla, who compared it to his psychoanalyst: “I start playing and I blurt everything out.” He composed the Concerto for Bandoneón, String Orchestra and Percussion during one of the most creatively exhilarating periods of his life. As with the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the nickname ‘Aconcagua’ is an invention by a party other than the composer—in this case, Piazzolla’s publisher, Aldo Pagani, who posthumously tacked the name on; it refers to the highest Andean peak.

The score omits woodwinds and brass, creating an ideal balance for the soloist. The first movement begins with bold determination—a more mature refinement of the similar procedure launching the Sinfonía Buenos Aires. The ensemble writing is dramatic and neatly articulated. Piazzolla also makes space for intimate dalliances between the soloist and orchestra, and for elaborate cadenzas in the center, before the opening material returns.

The central movement reveals Piazzolla—as composer and performer—at his most intimate, beginning with an extensive, soulful solo on the bandoneón emphasizing the lyrical intensity of which the tango is capable. The movement unfolds as introspective night music, with harp, solo violin and piano adding evocative touches. The finale begins as a bracing, breathless rondo but takes a surprise turn midway through. Suddenly, underscored by the güiro, the bandoneón begins to bawl a self-pitying monologue and then resolves into a stoic motif, convincing the ensemble to join in.

Piazzolla wrote Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) in separate installments in the late 1960s. Even after he put them together as a suite whose title referred to Vivaldi’s famous set of four concertos (themselves part of a larger cycle), that was just one of the many incarnations in which this music has appeared over the years. The composer started with Summer as a stand-alone piece, written overnight as theater music to accompany a play and configured for his five-piece tango quintet. The adjective porteño refers to “people of the port/harbor,” i.e., the people of Buenos Aires. Unlike Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, each of which is a three-movement violin concerto accompanied by descriptive sonnets, Piazzolla’s pieces are single tango movements that conjure states of mind.

The posthumous arrangement we hear, however, does indulge in a few more Vivaldi references. Most importantly, Leonid Desyatnikov reconfigured the music for solo violin; he also added explicit quotations in Summer and Winter, playfully alluding to the hemispheric difference, so that Buenos Aires’ Summer correctly corresponds to Vivaldi’s Italian Winter, and vice versa.

Autumn starts off with imitative percussion effects from the soloist and soon brings in the knife-edge glissando swoops that figure so prominently in Piazzolla’s tango style. An emotionally florid cadenza from the cello reminds us of the reflective state of mind so often associated with autumn. A passing tutti gives way to another cadenza, this time from the violin, which rewrites the cello solo with its own more capricious meditations. An angry-sounding reprise of the opening brings a quick end.

The emotional range Piazzolla uncovers in the tango is truly limitless. Winter begins in a somber mood. The violin’s cadenza here seeks to heat the music up with passion, which leads to an amorous duet with solo cello. Eventually, a full-on tango breaks out—almost as a challenge, as music from Vivaldi’s Summer storm briefly rages in the background. More Baroque references close out this odd tango. Spring kicks off with a wonderfully fugal texture (the very idea of a “tango fugue” is, in a nutshell, typical of Piazzolla’s nuevo tango). The luxuriously lyrical middle episode mimics the function of the slow interior movement in a three-movement concerto grosso. Following this comes a reprise of the fugal opening spiced with Psycho-like dissonances. A similar shape is found in Summer, with delirious, languid excursions in the central episode. Concluding the cycle is a climax of intense frenzy—the tango as erotic duel.

Thomas May

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