On Thursday 2 November, the Philharmonia Chamber Players continue their free early-evening concert series with a performance of Piazzolla's Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires).
Bandoneonist Julian Rowlands introduces his arrangements and the world of Astor Piazzolla in this post.
Bandoneonist and composer Astor Piazzolla is the most famous representative of Argentinian tango music. His work transcends the genre of tango, referencing classical music, jazz and rock, and entering the worlds of opera, literature and film.
Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) were not originally conceived as a suite. The first movement to be composed, Verano Porteño (Summer), was written in 1965 as incidental music for the play Melenita de Oro by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz. Piazzolla also immediately created an arrangement of the piece for the traditional tango orchestra of his mentor Aníbal Troilo that was recorded in 1967. Otoño (Autumn) was written in 1969, and Primavera and Invierno (Spring and Winter) in 1970.
Many of Piazzolla's major works, including the Estaciones, were written for tango ensembles, the majority for a quintet consisting of bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano and bass. Classical ensembles usually perform these works in arrangements. The Estaciones are frequently heard by concert audiences today in the arrangement for violin and strings written by Leonid Desyatnikov in 1996-8 that was popularised by Gidon Kremer. Desyatnikov's version is a work of recomposition that incorporates sections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons (Quattro Stagioni) and passages by the arranger to create a concertante suite for the violin. It is a very effective concert work that doesn't require an extensive knowledge of tango performance practises to perform.
I have taken a different approach in the arrangements of the Estaciones that I have made for bandoneon and string quintet, and by way of explanation I will describe how I see the tradition of Argentinian tango and the music of Piazzolla as related to, but distinct from, European art music or classical music.
Piazzolla studied with the great 20th century classical figures Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, but as a performer he worked for most of his life within the tradition of Argentinian tango. Tango argentino is an art music tradition in which orchestras (the “orquestas típicas de tango”) employed professional arrangers, but the score is often a preliminary that is altered, developed and embellished in rehearsal and performance. Piazzolla composed at the piano and then changed anything that didn't work in rehearsal with his band. Final performance versions weren't captured in the scores that were eventually published.
Tango musicians understand how to create the rhythmic structures notated in Piazzolla's scores in shorthand, how to add articulation and dynamics to shape the phrase, and to vary the rhythmic structure of melodies. In the extensive solos passages, the lines as notated are a simple framework on which Piazzolla and violinist Fernando Suárez Paz hang their intricate, rhapsodic embellishments. The most difficult aspect of this embellishment for classical musicians is the so-called “fraseo” (phrasing), where the soloist pushes and pulls the tempo against the steady pulse of the accompanying instruments; any tendency to follow the soloist breaks the phrasing, so the ensemble has to brutally resist their instinct to play in the sensitive manner that is engrained in chamber musicians!
The relationship between score and realisation in tango is more similar to baroque music than to any other genre: there is a role for embellishment but not for extensive improvisation over a chord sequence, and a sense of dance is important, even in works that weren't written to be danced. Piazzolla's music resembles baroque music structurally: it often reduces to two contrapuntal melody lines with a bass, and piano and guitar perform a continuo-like role in between obbligato passages. Imagine if we had recordings of Vivaldi and Corelli performing their own pieces – what a revelation that would be. But in the case of Piazzolla we do have the recordings, and with a piece like Verano Porteño we can follow the development of Piazzolla's interpretation through the successive recordings that he made. In tango the recording is the authoritative text, and the primary means of transmitting the tradition in Argentina is through transcription and recreation of recordings under the guidance of experienced teachers. We can create versions of the great classic tangos that are faithful replicas of recorded performances and that serve as a starting point for our own interpretations, which can then develop from performance to performance in a continuation of the tradition.
The arrangements that I have written are closely modelled on Piazzolla's recordings with his quintet, except for Verano Porteño, which is based on the extended version that he created for his nonet consisting of bandoneon, electric guitar, piano, drums, string quartet and bass. So in this movement I was able to recreate much of the string writing using the same instrumentation.
Decisions have to be made regarding how much and how exactly one includes passages that may be spur of the moment creations, sometimes simplifying in order to allow space for new interpretative ideas, while trying to capture the moments of ecstatic rhapsody in a way that will bear recreation without becoming stale. There were passages where I asked myself: is this too crazy to include in a concert version? But I mostly resisted the temptation to censor or to bowdlerise and I will leave it to audiences to decide whether I made the right calls. I think that it pays off to study the recorded versions deeply and repeatedly in order to gain an insight into the decision making and creative processes that forged this repertoire.
Piazzolla was a great composer who spent a lifetime working his musical material and producing many masterpieces, while simultaneously maintaining a performance career at a high level. He also represents the visible tip of an iceberg when it comes to Argentinian tango music, and I hope that as more musicians take an interest in performing his music in the stylistic traditions of Buenos Aires, they will also explore the repertoire of the great orquestas típicas – of Aníbal Troilo, so important in Piazzolla's development, and also of Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos di Sarli, Pedro Laurenz, Juan D'Arienzo, Osvaldo Fresedo, Florindo Sassone ….
© Julian Rowlands: bandoneon.co.uk