Wednesday 28 July 2021

Piazzolla explorations: celebrating the composer's centenary with recordings from Lithuania, Switzerland and the USA

Astor Piazzolla playing the bandoneon
Astor Piazzolla playing the bandoneon

This year is Astor Piazzolla's centenary, and centenaries are usually the time for reassessment and rediscovery. Perhaps that will come, I feel that we need modern groups to explore the style and soundworld of the composer's original performances, but at the moment musicians seem to be more interested in where Piazzolla's music can take them and where they can take his music. 

I have been listening to three, very different tributes to the composer coming from Lithuania, Switzerland and the USA. We get two different versions of his bandoneon concerto and Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas, as well as a wide variety of shorter works in versions for harp and piano. Not a definitive collection of Piazzolla, but a sampling of the explorations triggered by the centenary.

Piazzolla's Aconcagua: concerto for bandoneon and orchestra performed by Martynas Levickis (accordion), Lithuanian Symphony Orchestra, conductor Modestas Pitrenas, and Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas with Levickis and Mikroorkestra on Accentus (ACC30552)First off is a disc from Lithuania with a live performance of Piazzolla's Aconcagua: concerto for bandoneon and orchestra performed by Martynas Levickis (accordion), Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Modestas Pitrenas, and a studio recording of Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas with Levickis and Mikroorkestra on Accentus (ACC30552). 

Piazzolla's concerto was written for his own instrument, the bandoneon, and premiered by the composer in 1979 in Buenos Aires. The title Aconcagua, in reference to the highest mountain in South America, was added by Piazzolla's publisher after his death. The orchestra is distinctive, plenty of percussion yet no wind instruments, and whilst Piazzolla writes in a symphonic three movement form, fast-slow-fast, the details are all his own brand of tango.

On this disc Levickis plays the work not on the bandoneon, a large-scale (usually 71 button) concertina, but on the rather more sophisticated accordion. The result has a luxurious feel to it, with the strings of the Lithuanian Symphony Orchestra mirroring the sophistication of Levickis' sounds.  Undoubtedly it works, you only have to listen to the way Levickis caresses the music in the slow movement, though perhaps the bandoneon would give a rougher element to the piece.

Piazzolla's Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas did not start out as a four-movement take off of Vivaldi's Four Season. Summer was composed for a theatrical play, but he subsequently added the other three and now the two works are often paired, with a solo violin common to both. In fact, Piazzolla wrote them for his quintet of violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón, though nowadays we hear them often in a version which moves them closes to Vivaldi. I am not sure what we hear here, no arranger is credited but Levickis and Mikroorkestra give a terrific performance, if you can leave the smoky bar-room sound of Piazzolla's original quartet behind.

Piazzolla - Duo Praxedis - ARS Produktion
Our next disc takes us even further from Piazzolla's originals. On ARS Produktion, Swiss mother and daughter Duo Praxedis (Praxedis Hug-Rütti, harp and Praxedis Geneviève Hug, piano) perform a wide selection of Piazzolla's music arranged for piano and harp. Their approach brings out the Western European element in Piazzolla's music, the man who studied with Nadia Boulanger and wanted to be a classical composer. His music is significant for the way it mixes that smoky bar-room element with the concert hall, adding a complexity to tango that could puzzle his Argentinian contemporaries. 

Their is no doubt of the musicality of the duo's approach, and the imagination that they apply to solving the challenges of performing this music on harp and piano. The sound world definitely takes things away from Piazzolla's natural habitat, but then is this any different from re-arranging Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas for Vivaldi-inspired violin and string orchestra. Like much great music, Piazzolla survives. This is an engaging disc to dip into, but frankly I am not sure about 100 minutes' worth at one sitting!

Piazzolla Cien Anos - Centaur Records
Our final disc celebrates Piazzolla both with his own music and with a composer inspired by him. Uruguay-born American Israeli conductor Gisele Ben-Dor conducts Juanjo Mosalini (bandoneon) and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston on Centaur Records (CRC 3844) in Piazzolla's Concerto for Bandoneon, Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas and Libertango, the latter two in Mosalini's own arrangements, plus two of his own pieces. Mosalini is Argentine-born but brought up in Paris where is father, a distinguished Argentine musician, was in exile.

This performance takes us, I think, a bit closer to the original concept for the concerto. There is more of an edge, less of a luxurious cushion to the orchestra and the players relish the moments where Piazzolla turns them into a real tango-band. For his part, Mosalini plays the bandoneon to the manner born and makes the instrument sophisticated whilst preserving the vigour, roughness and edge that is needed. This is music which has been brought into the concert hall, but still with a whiff of the bar room. 

Mosalini's own Cien Anos was composed, not for Piazzolla but for his own grandfather, yet it fits here and is paired with Mosalini's Toma, Toca dedicated to Piazzolla's former electric guitar player Tomas Gubitsch. Both engaging and examples of the continuation of Piazzolla's tradition.

Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas features Mosalini's new arrangement for bandoneon and orchestra, and it is clear quite how each version re-invents the piece as there are moments when you wonder whether this is the same music. As with the concerto, there is more edge here, rhythms are tighter and those sharp-edged tangos are rarely far away whilst you can feel that smoky bar-room. I really enjoyed this performance and will return to it, partly because you feel that for all their Western European-style sophistication, the musicians are willing and able to get down and dirty too.

And we end with a terrific version of Libertango in Mosalini's own arrangement again for bandoneon and strings.

I am still waiting for that disc where a modern quintet gets down and dirty with Piazzolla's music. Perhaps that is no longer possible, we simply listen to it with too sophisticated ears.

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