double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on... Piazolla: Concerto for bandoneon; Tres movimientos tanguisticos; Tangos Pablo Mainetti, Orquestra de Cambra / Josep Pons (Harmonia Mundi 901595)
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The Independent Culture
It is said that the tango is about destiny. But that's only the half of it. It's about solitude. It's about belonging or not belonging. It's the blues of the bordello turned song of survival. A popular dance with a heart of darkness. Astor Piazzolla's tangos smoulder across the dance floor and out into the night. The rhythms chug and churn, going nowhere, but the bandoneon (a kind of accordion to you or me) keeps playing that song. And the song is freedom. Five tangos headline this stunningly idiomatic Piazzolla-fest; and five tiny dramas unfold. Stealth and allure and a blatant sexiness are the prime ingredients, then there is the nostalgia, the regret, the defiance. Adios nonino is as good as its word - a long goodbye torn (or so it would seem) from some 1940s film noir, its big, blowsy, decadent tune coming on like a certain Gershwin Rhapsody. Except that the colour isn't blue: it's black, pitch black. But there's a bigger and better twist in all of this. Piazzolla, the pupil of Ginastera and Boulanger, did for his tango what Gershwin did for jazz. He took it out of the bordellos, out of the nightclubs, and into the concert halls. Concerto for bandoneon is like no other music you've ever heard.

Well it is and it isn't. Driving ostinatos suggest a latterday concerto grosso, a Stravinskian neo-classicism - urbane, anonymous. But the bandoneon breaks in on the scene and it's as if the heart of the immigrant were being tugged homeward. Dissonances in the strings suggest alienation, and longing. It's a lonely town (aren't they all?); and we are so very far from home. This is the sexiest desolation in music. The slow movement is to Argentina what Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is to Spain. But there are surprises aplenty, extraordinary colours, haunting, menacing colours (from just strings, piano, harp, percussion); even the ethnicity of the bandoneon is made to feel strange and out-of-kilter. But always, underpinning it all, is this driving determination. Destiny. It's there again in Tres movimientos tanguisticos portenos, but this time without the bandoneon.

You'll hear many indulgences (isn't the opening a dead ringer for Milhaud's Creation du Monde?) but no conformity. The swarthy Latino character makes melodrama of even the most popularistic elements. But that's the nature of the tango, and in Piazzolla it's all-pervasive. You can lose yourself in the slow movement - a long day's journey into some urban twilight. But then a climax of itchy percussion and overripe horns lights up the city skyline. It's Friday, it must be Buenos Aires. ES

A CD full of Argentinian tangos played with this kind of verve and style could have been a pure (or rather, impure) delight. But that isn't what we get; instead Pons and his ensemble present a tango-inspired Concerto, "the musical expression of the solitude of the individual at the heart of urban society".

Fair enough, one shouldn't blame the composer for such preposterous market- speak, but Piazzolla's Concerto for bandoneon evidently aims fairly high, which only makes its failure all the more dispiriting. It starts promisingly enough: pulsating, energetic rhythms, bright colours - the kind of throbbing dance background against which something vital and sexy could take off. But it never happens. Less than halfway through the first movement I was longing for a really good Latin tune - or even Hernando's Hideaway. It never comes, and the absence of anything approaching decent lyricism finally grows desperate in the slow movement, with its mechanical chord-sequences and bare scraps of cliched ornamentation a la Nyman. Is this the promised vision of urban alienation? I can't help feeling that a true Argentinian might at least have had a decent sing about it.

Emptiness continues to hold sway through the Tres movimientos tanguisticos portenos; and then suddenly comes relief in the form of five atmospheric, unpretentious and mercifully tuneful tangos, played for all they are worth by Mainetti, with moody introductions by pianist Lluis Vidal. At last, colourful, sensuous images dance in front of the mind's eye. As I said, if only it had all been like this. SJ