Review: Celebrating Piazzolla: 100 Years of Tango

Simon Hale enjoys the latest digital offering from the CBSO.

Tango may have originated in the bars and bordellos of late 19th century Buenos Aires, but it was Astor Piazzolla who brought the music into the concert hall.

Despite the disapproval of the traditionalists, the Argentine composer who was born exactly 100 years ago blended in jazz and other musical styles to win over the world with ‘nuevo tango’.

El Ultimo Tango, a quintet comprising members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has honoured Piazzolla’s memory by performing arrangements of some of his most famous compositions, along with music that inspired him, for an online audience. Filmed at the CBSO Centre in March 2021 on the centenary, the concert exudes a freshness and assuredness as it moves satisfyingly between mysterious dissonance and romantic melody.

Its authenticity is reinforced by the quintet’s Argentine cellist Eduardo Vassallo, whose father played in Piazzolla’s band. The fascinating discussions between the musicians during the interludes include Eduardo’s reflections on his family’s association with the composer – and he even shows us some photos of the band which are also reproduced on a background screen.

It is in a nightclub-like performance space, dimly lit partly by overhanging light bulbs, that El Ultimo Tango delivers a programme covering the history of tango. Without a traditional bandoneon player, guitarist or percussionist, arranger and bass player Mark Goodchild has divided the parts among the quintet in an effective and affectionate way. From his influences, you feel sure Piazzolla would have approved.

Each musician gets to show off his skills, with flautist Nicolas Bricht, saxophonist Mark O’Brien and pianist John Turville delivering stunning solos among the extended harmonies in Histoire du Tango, which takes us from the music of a 1930s café via a nightclub in 1960 to the present day.

From baroque classicism to fiery rhythm, the quintet’s energy and zest are also given full rein in Piazzola’s own take on The Four Seasons with Summer and Winter from his Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), composed in homage to Vivaldi.

Acknowledging another influence on Piazzolla’s musical training, the programme also includes a tango version of seven of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, wittily entitled Bachissimo by Goodchild and arranged last year as “a lockdown project”.

With Vassallo’s virtuosity on cello in full flow, El Ultimo Tango also gives a joyous rendition of Libertango, perhaps the composer’s most famous work. It’s the piece that most makes you want to get up and dance, while the quintet’s performance of Preludio is one you definitely want to sit out to if only for its intriguing mix of the sinister and the sentimental.

The slow Angel Suite that completes the programme could hardly be more appropriate to these times, with disturbing music originally composed for a play about the murder of an angel leading on to an uplifting and optimistic final section celebrating the angel’s resurrection.

Celebrating Piazzolla: 100 Years of Tango is part of the CBSO’s new Miniature Collection, which also includes Beethoven’s Septet, filmed at the CBSO Centre in July 2020, and Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande and Ravel’s Mother Goose suite, conducted by Fabien Gabel and filmed at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in December 2020.

The package is available to view online here until Wednesday, June 30th, 2021 priced from £10 to £40 per person.