CD Review–Tango Nuevo: Works of Astor Piazzolla

I love a fugue. I especially love a fugue that has a lot of dissonance; even contemporary composers sometimes resort to older-fashioned harmonies when “fuguing”. Not so much Astor Piazzolla. The opening piece La Muerte Del Angel on Tango Nuevo gives us a lovely opening dose of polyphonic dissonance, then proceeds to further disarm with a non-sentimental swoon of “Tango Romantique” so characteristic of the composer. The opening flourish by violinist Tomas Cotik is superbly idiomatic.
The four movement Histoire Du Tango continues the contrasting moods seamlessly. Movement one, Bordel 1900 is early tango, heavily influenced by late-nineteenth century European cafe music. More dramatic than the sum of its influences, the piece has ample opportunities for virtuosic expression, which Cotik and the pianist Tao Lin continually exploit.
Cafe 1930 brings to mind Brahms seen through the eyes of Debussy. Particularly memorable is the center trio section, whose mysterious layers are both clarified and intentionally left untouched by the deft playing of the performers.
Nightclub 1960 enters a more nationalistic world, with local influences such as Brazilian bossa nova evident in the slower passages. The lingering melodies more than the characteristic bossa nova harmonies are here—I suppose I would have liked to see a few more of the latter from this composer–but the piece as a whole is congruent and brilliantly performed.
Concert D’aujourd’hui finds the tango come full-on into the 20th century. The martellato textures of Bartok and swiftly changing meters of Stravinsky highlight this serenade to the breakup of traditional musical parameters in that century. Cotik and Lin show their abundant knowledge of the music of that time in their playing.
The title of Melodia In A Minor was changed later by Piazzolla to The Mandrake, a plant of poisonous alkaloids. The pale whiteness of A minor heard in keyboard and violin timbres seems to echo that kind of bleached bareness.
By contrast, the Tango in the same key is anything but pale. A very sensual violin, full of slippery glissandi played to full effect by Mr. Cotik, makes this piece the most characteristic Piazzolla work so far. The mood of The Mandrake returns briefly in the middle, but the piece goes out on a dissonant flourish.
Milonga Sin Palabras was originally written for the bandoneon, as were several of the other works on this recording. The “rough accordion” sound of the instrument is irreplaceable, but Cotik knows how use the aforementioned glissandi and an apparently liberal use of the G string to not only evoke the bandoneon, but add aspects not available on that instrument.
Fuga Y Misterio from Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires, the first of a Mariatrilogy of pieces on this CD,is yet another fugue, this time very different, in the more tonal style of a strict fugue. The piece soon logically opens up into contrapuntal-style melodies resembling those of Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras.
Originally for oboe and piano and written for the 1984 film Enrico IV,Tanti Anni Prima (also entitled Ave Maria) is a simple melody realized in a lovely pale performance, a contrast in mood and instrumentation to the unbridled bandoneon music which throughout the film represents Enrico’s madness.
Yo soy Maria, also from Maria de Buenos Aires, is a third reflection on the theme of Maria, this time melancholic. Here Maria is a prostitute, and is now herself a figure of madness and downfall.
Oblivion, also from Enrico IV, is a justly famous work, an apotheosis of the minor mode tango which incorporates much already heard in this album—thus its appropriate placement here near the end of the CD. Again, Cotik’s controlled but emotional glissandi mix with Tao Lin’s understated playing to make this a catharsis for all that has come before.
Air de la zamba nina reminds again of Villa-Lobos, particularly the Prole Do Bebe suites for the piano. The innocence of the melody coupled with gentle diatonic dissonance makes this a palate cleanser before the last two works on the CD.
In many ways the most serious work on the CD, Le Grand Tango reminds one that Piazzolla was a composer of serious concert music. Full of varying gestures and textures, a piece like this affirms that Piazzolla in many ways did for his country what Villa-Lobos did for Brazil—brought the traditional and indigenous musics of their respective countries into a classical mainstream that yet remained nationalistic. The playing here is in so many ways exemplary—I particularly love the players’ realization of the Ravelian music in the middle section.
However, the CD goes out on the energy of popular music with Libertango. As with many of the arrangements on this CD it is illustrative to listen to the original version, performed by Conjunto 9. That original is 70’s progressive jazz-rock. Cotik and Lin take a faster tempo, seemingly to convey the same energy–but a closer listening reveals some of the intrinsic differences between popular and classical music. The original relied to a great extent on the built-in rhythms of the ensemble, but this transcription gets its rhythmic energy from the classically-born marcatos, spiccatos, and overall accented playing of these gifted performers. Both versions are wonderful, yet each is entirely idiomatic.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.