Simply Dazzling

Piazzolla and Vivaldi's
'Four Seasons' -
heard by

'... I rather missed the sound of the bandoneon ...'


Tango maestro Ástor Piazzolla composed and recorded Verano Porteño ('Buenos Aires Summer') in 1965. It was originally music for a play and written for Piazzolla's own band which simply consisted of bandoneon, violin, electric guitar and piano. It was not until 1970 that he composed the other pieces which related to the remaining seasons. Though he occasionally performed them as a group, the four pieces are listed separately in his catalogue. It was only in 1999, after Piazzolla's death, that the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (born in Leningrad in 1955) conceived the idea of linking the pieces together and arranging them for string orchestra and violin solo, thus providing a further link to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. So The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires is something of a hybrid work, with Desyatnikov's arrangement giving a European virtuoso gloss and polish to Piazzolla's evocation of the Buenos Aires of the poor working class (who were the traditional owners of the tango).

On this disc they are recorded by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under Eduardo Marturet with Lara St John playing the solo violin part. Not surprisingly the Piazzolla/Desyatnikov Four Seasons are paired with the Vivaldi ones.

Now it must be said that the achievement of the youth orchestra is astonishing.

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Listen -- Piazzolla: Verano Porteño
(track 16, 5:11-5:53) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

Whilst I might have quibbles about the way they do things, it is only in the occasional lapse of ensemble with the soloist that the group even hints at their youth orchestra status. If you heard this disc as a casual listener you would have no inkling that the musicians playing were so young. And they use a relatively small group of strings as well, just twenty two players, so there would have been no room to hide for any of the musicians.

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Listen -- Piazzolla: Primavera Porteña
(track 15, 3:32-4:30) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

Desyatnikov's arrangement gives Piazzolla's pieces a mid 20th century European feel. I must confess that I rather missed the sound of the bandoneon, Piazzolla's own instrument, and did rather wish that Desyatnikov could have found room for a bandoneon continuo part or something.

The set starts in Autumn (Otoño Porteño) and the movement includes a substantial cello solo, finely played by Edgar A Calderon. For much of the time in these pieces, the solo violin part is more of a concertante one, the first amongst equals, though every so often Desyatnikov gives the violin some fireworks. Autumn is rather edgy and jazzy and not particularly mellow.

Winter (Invierno Porteño) is wistful and darker, with constant hints at a big tune. Piazzolla's structures are rather episodic, creating a whole out of a patchwork. But under Maturet's sure direction, St John and the young musicians ensure that these individual moments add up to something.

Spring (Primavera Porteña) opens with a lively jazzy fugato

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Listen -- Piazzolla: Primavera Porteña
(track 15, 0:00-0:42) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

before things slow down, and Summer (Verano Porteño) combines melodic with highly rhythmic elements. Summer raised another query: could you dance to this music? (I don't know the answer to this one: I can't dance the tango.)

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Listen -- Piazzolla: Verano Porteño
(track 16, 0:30-1:28) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

In the solo role St John blends beautifully with the ensemble, and she bends notes and slides to the manner born. In fact, if anything the performance was a little too polite, a little too cleaned up. I have vivid memories of hearing a concert by a South American early music group and after the serious event, they all decanted to the foyer to give us more 20th century dance music fare. So I am quite sure that the musicians on this disc could have swung the music a little more. But that is a minor point as there are so many moments where the playing is simply dazzling, no more so than the amazing orchestral swoops at the end of Summer.

When it comes to the Vivaldi, the performance by the orchestra is a beautifully musicianly one.

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Listen -- Vivaldi: Allegro (I) ('Spring')
(track 1, 0:00-1:03) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

Here they do seem to be on their very best behaviour and sometimes the playing feels a little constrained. The performance attempts no period practice, which is to be expected. But they play lightly and smoothly, so that though this is a modern instrument performance it never feels heavy. The only thing I missed was the bouncy feel of the bow off the string which is common currency in period practice.

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Listen -- Vivaldi: Allegro (III) ('Spring')
(track 3, 0:00-1:02) © 2009 Ancalagon LLC

There is a harpsichord, played by Bruno Procopio, but in the ensemble passages he is so distantly placed as to be almost inaudible. If you are going to use a harpsichord continuo in ensembles, you should at least ensure that it is audible. The subversive part of me wonders what the piece would have sounded like if they'd used a bandoneon instead of a harpsichord!

Lara St John gives a light, modern account of the solo part. She is certainly gifted when it comes to the technical aspects. I feel though, that she ought to look into period practice a little. At the moment her interpretation veers a little towards Nigel Kennedy, with pitch bending and slides which would seem out of place in Vivaldi's sound world.

This sort of disc, using small-ish chamber forces, is difficult to bring off for an ordinary chamber orchestra. So it is to their immense credit that Eduardo Maturet and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra have given us such a well crafted and sophisticated account of these two very different works.

Copyright © 2 June 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK














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