|Image courtesy of BBC NOW|
Carlos López Burchardo – Escenas argentinas
Juan José Castro – Sinfonía argentina: ‘El Arrabal’
Àstor Piazzolla – Concerto for Bandoneón, ‘Aconcagua’
Michael Berkeley – Tango! (world premiere)
Alberto Ginastera – Estancia (ballet)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Conductor – Edwin Outwater / Accordion – James Crabb / Baritone – Lucas Somoza Osterc
"This city that I believed was my past
Is my future, my present;
The years I have lived in Europe are illusory,
I was always (and will be) in Buenos Aires."
Jorge Luis Borges
BBC Hoddinott Hall on a mild September afternoon is a far cry from the sweaty bars and brothels of Buenos Aires which gave birth to the modern tango – or at least distilled it into its most potent, erotic form. So, too, are the windy plains of Patagonia, where the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is heading later this autumn for a pioneering residency (joined in concert by the National Youth Choir of Wales), before a South American tour that takes in Argentina’s capital and its counterparts in Uruguay and Chile. But, from the once-seafaring settlers of Cardiff Bay to the Welsh descendants in distant Y Wladfa and the Creole melting pot of the Porteños, nostalgia and national identity often go hand in hand. The tango is not unique to Buenos Aires, and exists in many forms, but everywhere it evokes a heady mix of imagined romance and a supposedly better, more alive place and time. Àstor Piazzolla is the most celebrated composer to have fallen under its spell; one of a long list of Argentinian composers who, in various ways, merged elements of the past and present with popular and ‘art’ musics, seeking a national style and their own voice within it.
The BBC NOW will shuttle across the Atlantic in a jumbo jet; very different from the patriots who set sail with no small trepidation in the modified tea-clipper, Mimosa, in 1865, trading the oppressive anglicisation of their language and way of life for an unknown future. From Argentina, 20th-century musical traffic often flowed in the opposite direction, with composers seeking inspiration (and, during periods of domestic dictatorship, political refuge) in Europe. Of the composers featured in this imaginative afternoon concert, Carlos López Burchardo and Juan José Castro were of the earliest generation to study in Paris – with Albert Roussel and Vincent d‘Indy respectively – before returning to Buenos Aires in the mid 1920s. Two decades later, Alberto Ginastera was drawn to the USA and to Aaron Copland in particular, whilst Piazzolla, a pupil of Ginastera in the early ‘50s, subsequently became one of many composers from all over the world to find success following studies with that great Parisienne, Nadia Boulanger.
As if to underline the importance of Europe in Buenos Aires itself, Burchado’s Escenas argentinas was premiered there by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, on tour in 1922. Cast in three movements, the work charts ‘Scenes from Argentina’ as a story of young love through changing moods: fiesta; a tranquil then lively brook; and a type of folk song originating in the gauchesco, or cowboy, culture Burchado encountered in his youth on the family estate, replete with the rhythms of the milonga; a syncopated style within which some trace the origins of the tango. The BBC NOW was crisply persuasive under its Californian conductor, Edwin Outwater, with a rippling homogeneous sound, and themes passed like colourful batons acround the orchestra. This is richly melodic music which looks back to a European 19th century nationalist model; characterised by expansive gestures and romantic wistfulness with the odd, harmonic twist in its folk-based material.
Castro’s ‘El Arrabal’ – the first movement of his Sinfonía argentina – was altogether more sinewy, and clearly influenced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Castro performed many times in Argentina and elsewhere as a conductor. ‘Arrabal’ refers to the impoverished districts of Buenos Aires from which the tango emerged in the late 19th century, just as the idealised rustic culture of the gaucho was disappearing. Both traditions are inherently macho; full of a domineering virility reflected in the strutting rhythms and sonorities of Castro’s impressively vivid score, authoritatively dispatched (to use an equally macho metaphor) by Outwater and the BBC NOW.
Piazzolla’s Concerto for Bandoneón, composed in 1979, was more subtle in balancing red-blooded passion with an almost sentimental, café culture insouciance. James Crabb was the outstanding soloist who, as much as Outwater, guided a responsive BBC NOW with relaxed expertise through the composer’s improvisatory twists and turns. Piazzolla was himself celebrated as a bandoneónista, and Crabb clearly knows his music inside out – although it was disappointing to hear the accordion rather than the brasher bandoneón on this occasion. However, there was some wonderfully snappy interplay across the strings, and between the soloist and pianist (Catherine Roe Williams) in particular.
Such is the ferocity of tango purists that Piazzolla endured death threats for supposedly diluting its authenticity, daring to push its harmonic and rhythmic possibilities on the concert platform. I trust the same won’t happen to Michael Berkeley in the light of his five-minute Tango!, here receiving its world premiere in homage to the great man. But then Berkeley’s score, albeit deftly and colourfully written and sympathetically performed, seemed to come more from the head than the hips, rather calling to mind these words of Borges:
“[the tango] promises no difficulties, but the French or Spanish composer who then follows it and correctly ‘crafts’ a tango is shocked to discover he has constructed something that our ears do not recognise, that our memory does not harbour, and that our bodies reject”
The final work was by Argentina’s most distinguished composer: Castro’s younger friend and colleague, Alberto Ginastera, whose earlier music was very much concerned with the gauchesco legacy. His popular ballet, Estancia, tells a picturesque tale of love and life, filtered through a Copland-esque, wide-angle lens, as a city boy woos a country girl on a cattle ranch. Here we heard the full ballet score rather than the more usual Suite, performed with verve by the orchestra and the yearning, almost-tenor, baritone of Lucas Somoza Osterc. The lack of programme text was an oversight by BBC NOW – but, regardless, the orchestra were in their element, with big, open chords, fanfares, galloping dances and tender entreaties off-set by muscular, driving rhythms.
Ginastera was a second-generation Argentinian and a life-long patriot who, despite going on to develop a more atonal idiom, and spending his later years in Europe, still spoke of his belief that “the artist should be a spokesman of a society, a spokesman of a people, and a spokesman of a given culture.” He died in 1983 – the year which saw the end of the last military dictatorship in Argentina – having put Argentina firmly on the international musical map for reasons quite aside from the brilliantly seductive tango.