Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Astor Piazzolla: In Portrait

A lot of thanks to the BBC for two documentaries in the early 2000s. Tango Salon, about the Confiteria Ideal and the people who go there, has some wonderful material, including Geraldine and Javier at their best together, Gerardo Portalea, 'Pupi' Castello and others, although it spends rather too much time with less interesting people. Astor Piazzolla: In Portrait, now re-issued as a DVD, is a perfectly-focused biography. It introduces us to Piazzolla and the people around him, family, musicians, friends, all remarkable, and it's wonderful to spend an hour in their company.

The DVD includes interesting interview material that didn't fit into the biography. Whenever his son, Daniel, saw him he was sat at the piano from 7 in the morning until the end of the day. 'He provoked inspiration: he sat at the piano with zero inspiration and sooner or later the music was coming.' But his hands were deformed from playing bandoneón since childhood: he was a good pianist, he always used the piano for composing, but couldn't play professionally. He had '...manos gigantes de bandoneónista, manos enormes. He could play chords that no other bandoneónista of the time could play' says Fernando E. Solanas.

Pablo Ziegler sits at the yellowed keys of his old Steinway, plays a piece of Piazzolla's characteristic 3/3/2 rhythm, and then the same piece in the old tango rhythm: 'It's this very square rhythm' he says, laughing, but making us hear how closely the two are related. He plays a few bars of the familiar adagio in La Muerte del Angel, very moving, and then breaks off and points out its relation to jazz; you suddenly realise it is familiar Piazzolla, but it could have been Errol Garner or Art Tatum.

French accordionist Richard Galliano played with Piazzolla, and talks about Piazzolla's free phrasing with a solid beat, about the modesty and honesty in his music, beautiful phrasing without sentimentality. He also talks about the beauty of the single line, comparing Piazzolla with Miles Davis, a similar deep sensitivity, and wonders what could have happened had they played together. (They played on the same stage, but not together, at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Both controlled their bands very tightly: perhaps there was no way they could ever have played together.)

British pianist Joanna MacGregor, who played Piazzolla's music with two of his musicians, observes that '...there really is a psychological and emotional depth that you don't find necessarily in contemporary music... and a sort of darkness' in his music.

There's also an interview with Amelita Baltar: a short, amazing extract of her performance of Loco, loco, loco is in the DVD.

The DVD also includes an entire 45-minute concert, called Tango Nuevo, with the sextet, for a small audience: lucky people! A reminder that 'Tango Nuevo' was the term coined by Piazzolla for the music he himself wrote. Watching that entire concert suggests that playing bandoneón is a bit like simultaneous touch-typing on two very hard keyboards with different layouts, without being able to see either, while supporting and controlling very precisely a bellows in between them. In fact it's like touch typing on four keyboards, since the notes are different depending on whether you're opening or closing the bellows. It's an difficult, intensely physical instrument to play, particularly at Piazzolla's level. A remarkable composer and a great performer

A great many of Piazzolla's recordings are on Spotify. I was delighted to find the soundtrack to that haunting, haunted, dark Argentine film, Sur, by Fernando E. Solanas, for which he was awarded Best Director at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. The CD is headlined 'Astor Piazzolla' but in the film it's clearly not Piazzolla, but bandoneón player Nestor Marconi with a small, first-class band and the intense, damaged voice of Goyaneche, playing and singing throughout the film in the streets at night, music that is a direct presence in the film rather than background, arranged by Piazzolla and with one or two tracks composed by him, but not performed by him. Absolutely the best film with tango music, and the best tango music I've heard on film.

Also on Spotify is the Naxos CD of Piazzolla's complete music for solo flute and guitar, a wonderful fresh sound: baroque tango. (Joanna MacGregor remarks on '...all the counterpoint in his music. He's a man who really did study his craft.') & Piazzolla's opera, Maria of Buenos Aires, is there, and his recording with Gerry Mulligan...

Incidentally, there's a website, www.piazzolla.org which has audio and video tracks, discographies, biography etc.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



cassiel said...


just a short remark to let you know that your wonderful blog is featured in my blogroll:


Kind regards from Germany


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your description of what it's like playing a bandoneon. I hope I start learning it at a young age in my next life; it's too late to begin now.

I'm not a Piazzola fan, but I attended the concert of Walter Rios last night with a sextet. Most of the program was Piazzola. Rios directed Sexteto Major for a period of time. He celebrated 60 years in music. It was interesting to see the unusual ways the instruments are played to perform Piazzola; for example, I had never seen a pianist "slap" the keys or bang the keyboard cover on the piano. Lighting effects and smog were all part of the show. At least he played his arrangement of Troilo hits.

Tangocommuter said...

@ Saoirse, welcome!

@ Cassiel, thanks for your kind words. I'm sorry I can't read much of your blog, but it seems to feature tango and films... Which is familiar ground! All best wishes from the UK!

@ Jantango: I like Piazzolla, but there's a limit to how much of that intense, driving energy I can take at one time. I can't listen to it in the same way I listen to golden age. But I've huge respect. For all the talk that he destroyed tango, when the dust has settled I think we'll see the extent to which he revitalised it: the way Fernando Fierro and Astillero play shows a huge debt to Piazzolla, no? Even if their music is relatively traditional. Since I discovered the Sur album online I've listened to it non-stop, Piazzolla arrangements but played by Marconi, a much less forceful line, a more sympathetic voice.

I really enjoyed the 'Tango Nuevo' concert on the DVD. It's not simple music: it's rich in textures and complex in structure, but unlike most 20th century music it has an immediate appeal. He was very creative with sound, as with rhythms. & wonderful to watch a group of musicians like that working together, an intimate concert, without the inevitable theatricality of a stage performance.