Classical Music: Seduced by the tango

Massive emotional forces are contained, and resolved, with the inevitability of ritual
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The Kronos Quartet weave dreams with it; Daniel Barenboim lets off steam with it; Yo-Yo Ma belts it out on the cello; violinist Gidon Kremer plays very little else. Forget the potency of cheap music: consider instead the tango. This extends far beyond the vertical sex it was originally designed to accompany: the tango now rivals jazz as the top recreational drug for classical virtuosi. Why should this seemingly fossilised form have so fired the classicists' imagination?

You could adduce its Spanish connections, its Cuban antecedents, its possible African roots: this is a music blissfully un-neutered by postmodern self-consciousness. You could talk about love and death, the knife under the cloak, the high drama of porteno low life. There is an element of truth in all these cliches, but the real secret is blindingly simple: Astor Piazzolla. Gidon Kremer's recording of this Argentinian composer's "operita" Maria de Buenos Aires (released this week by Teldec) is the latest in a burst of hommages from the classical camp.

Piazzolla lived and died a bandoneonist, and was never happier than when playing in downtown Buenos Aires. But he was also classically-trained: his aim was to raise the tango to a concert art, without blunting its exhilarating edge. Since Bach was the first great dealer in strict-rhythm dance forms, it was fitting that he should be one of Piazzolla's heroes; Bach's harmonic progressions pervade his works. Like Bach, he saw no great distinction between improvisation, composition and performance. In Piazzolla's tangos, massive emotional forces are contained, and resolved, with the inevitability of ritual.

Maria de Buenos Aires is uncharacteristically sprawling: a low-life saga tailor-made for translation to the cinema (Bunuel would have known exactly what to do with it). "I don't think it's going to be standard repertoire," says Kremer cautiously. He can say that again. The libretto, by one of Piazzolla's besotted admirers, is a wild farrago of whores, angels, pimps, and psychiatrists. The work's true subject is the tango itself, which ranges from lazy deliberation to furious excitement, and every so often breaks into a remarkably Bach-like fugue. Kremer, who spins violin arabesques above the melee below, says he was impelled to make this recording by the "injustice" done to the work by its original recording 30 years ago. The result is mesmerising: I cannot imagine a better advocate.

From another neck of the classical woods comes Los Tangueros (Sony), on which ace-Schubertian Emanuel Ax teams up with tango specialist Pablo Ziegler for a luxurious two-piano romp. Ax confesses that he only got the point of tango when he saw Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, and that he had to be taught how to play it by Ziegler. "It was galling to watch his ease with things I had great trouble with. People like me tend to work in phrase-lengths, and to pursue a singing line at the expense of rhythmic intensity. This was a valuable lesson."

Meanwhile, the British pianist Kathryn Stott has been infected with the Piazzolla virus by her chamber colleague Yo-Yo Ma (on Soul of the Tango from Sony). "I didn't get it when I first looked at the music," she says. "It was only when we started playing, and the incredible build-up of tension hit me in the stomach, that I understood why Yo-Yo was so mad about it." She has now founded a tango trio, and is off to Japan next week with her own Piazzolla arrangements.


THIS WEEK, after the most ignominiously protracted selection process in living memory, the BBC finally announced the new controller of Radio 3. Will Wyatt's enraged denials that Roger Lewis was offered the job are now denied by an equally enraged R Lewis. By accepting the top job at Classic FM, Lewis has found his perfect niche. So who is this other Roger who inherits Nicholas Kenyon's crown of thorns?

"A safe pair of hands," say Roger Wright's former colleagues at Deutsche Grammophon. "Conscientious, caring, and canny," say fellow-labourers at Broadcasting House, where as head of classical music he has just struck an impressively sensible new deal with the orchestral unions.

When I ask him what he thinks Radio 3 stands for, I get a bold and unhesitating reply. "It's about maintaining quality, and preserving the public service role. It's about being a cultural patron, about broadcasting live and specially-recorded music. It's about maintaining the voice of authority, and making the audience feel they are part of the world of ideas.'

Will he therefore reprieve the excellent Music Matters, which Kenyon was planning to axe? "That's the sort of issue I want to look at." Which presenters will Wright axe? "I can't talk about that yet. It's only fair to talk privately with everybody first, but I will obviously want to change things." How important to him are ratings? "What's more important to me is the editorial distinctiveness of the network. We have a loyal and passionately committed audience, and I would like them to listen longer than they do at present." There is no gung-ho bombast here.

Wright will have to fit into a complicated heirarchy, and he will have as his commissioning editor the music world's top bogeywoman, who was originally regarded as a shoo-in for the job he has landed. So who will call the shots? He or Hilary Boulding? "It's still early days. I'll let you know about that." He laughs, but he sounds confident. And this is a man who, while at DG, signed up Oliver Knussen and recordingBoulez and Berio. Authority, passion, ideas? I think - praise be - I hear the sound of a clock being turned back.