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Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 10 - March, 2000

Jason Serinus

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"Sera Una Noche"

Santiago Vazquez, percussion and tablas; Marcelo Moguilevsky, clarinets and recorders; Gabriel Rivano, bandoneon; Pedro Aznar, vocals and hand clapping; Gabriel Kirschenbaum, guitar; Martin Iannaccone, cello

MA Recordings; M052-A


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One of the privileges of being a classical music reviewer is that, in a time when classical labels frequently turn to recording new and unusual repertoire in order to survive, discs I might never usually gravitate towards arrive in my mailbox. Whenever I am tempted to ignore them and turn instead to the tried and true, I remind myself that for all the concerts I have attended in the past few years, two of the most energizing and enjoyable have been of Holly Near and Sweet Honey in the Rock – hardly your usual classical fare – while among the most dreadful have been performances of some of the operas I most love.

Which brings me to these wonderful recordings. The first two I picked up directly from audiophile labels at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; the Naxos recording came from their fabulous PR person, while the last came as my reward for hounding the good folks at Nonesuch until they put me on their reviewer’s list. All discs eschew the familiar territory of Bach, Handel, Vivald, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and the like in favor of lands and music more exotic to this New York/California boy’s ears. And each has brought me such significant pleasure, that I can do no less than share an inkling of it with you.

Sera Una Noche is one of those recordings that give audiophile labels a good name. Like all MA Recordings, it was captured by only two omnidirectional mikes feeding a modified high-sampling DAT via short runs of Cardas Golden Cross mike cable.

Ma is Japanese for “space,” and space is the operative term when describing the feel one gets when hearing this music. Sera Una Noche features superb musicians who make very conscious use of different sounds, textures, space, and silence to create a truly captivating landscape of aural delights. Even heard from the other room, playing in the background as I type, I find myself charmed by its colors and contrasts.

Percussionist and co-producer Santiago Vazquez specifically assembled the group Sera Una Noche to make this Tango recording for MA. As he explains in notes sent me separately, Tango was born around 1900 as a result of the fusion of music brought to Buenos Aires by immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, and many other places; Afrikan immigrants from Uruguay and Brazil may have also had an influence on its evolution. It birthed in brothels, marginal environments, and downtown neighborhoods. (There is a smoky style to the arrangements and improvisations on this very modern recording that speaks of these roots.) Originally played as instrumental music to accompany dancing, it soon acquired voice and lyrics, and became more refined as the century progressed. Astor Piazzolla, classically trained, is the musician most representative of the mid-century trend to refine Tango, infusing it with classical and even jazz elements, and developing it into an art form that could stand by itself in both clubs and concert halls.

While the Tango movement began to decay in the 1960s, perhaps because its lyrics usually refer to the past and what has gone before, there has been a recent resurgence of young Argentinian instrumentalists who play Tango in new as well as old expressions. At this point, their music is completely ignored by the big record companies and mass media. While the specialized press is beginning to show interest, the market for Tango, new-Tango and jazz-Tango - sometimes referred to as Musica Ciudadana  - is just beginning to grow.

This recording includes “free” and “open” versions of traditional Tangos, other rhythms from argentinian folklore, and original compositions that represent a synthesis of old elements with a new, living vision. Sera Una Noche contains the essence of Tango, “filtered and played by musicians not born inside the Tango tradition.” Eschewing clichés, it uses vocals and instruments to “bring alive the true profundity of Tango,” working with “very open structures that [give] room for improvising freely, and the blending of new ideas with old ones.”

At this very moment, track 9 of 13, “Quejas de bandoneon” vibrates through my high-end system. It begins with “that” Tango melody everyone knows, then begins to sound like an Argentinian version of Jimminy Cricket, dancing its way through my living room, laughing at me and giving me a wink with its “Hernando’s Hideaway” finish. Most tracks on the disc are not dance-like, per se, and few are humorous. But thanks to the brilliant combination of sound, space and silence, each is a gem.

Sera Una Noche is so far only available in Japan and by mailorder for $15 from M.A Recordings: http://marecordings.com / email: info@marecordings.com / fax (818) 783-4938. I suppose some will have to pay sales tax.

- Jason Serinus -

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"The Unknown Piazzolla"

Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano, with Hector Falcon, violin; Nardo Poy, viola; Eugene Moye, cello

Chesky ; CD 190

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The Unknown Piazzolla features the pre-and post-Tango movement work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the man who created the “New Tango” movement in 1954 with the founding of his octet. Born 300 miles south of Buenos Aires, Astor and his family settled in NYC at Saint Mark’s Place when the boy was only four. There he began to play the accordion-like bandoneon and study piano with a disciple of Rachmaninov who lived in the same tenement as his family (very close to where, in 1972, I worked serving egg creams at 2 AM to the drugged-out Electric Circus crowd). Astor returned to Argentina in 1938, where he became a bandoneonist and arranger with an orchestra. Most interested in developing as a classical composer, he followed up on a suggestion from pianist Arthur Rubinstein and, in 1942, began studying with renowned Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

Most of the music on The Unknown Piazzolla dates from the composer’s 1943 - 1953, pre-Tango period. Some of it evidences Argentinian influence; other compositions reflect a more European classical language. These works supply ample evidence of the composer’s skill. They may not be as infectiously likable or accessible as his later music, but they hold many rewards for those who will take the time to listen.

In 1953, Piazzolla received a French government scholarship to study in Paris with the famed Nadia Boulanger. If you have never heard of this woman, let me assure you that her name will pop up in the biography of countless fabled composers and musicians who worked with her over the years. She was clearly a marvelous teacher, and someone whom people listened to. In this case, Astor listened when Nadia told him that he needed to write Tango. That he did, like crazy. Three of the compositions on this recording, composed 1965 - 1979, evidence the “New  Tango” results of her direction. (In a recent San Francisco Symphony concert, composer/conductor John Adams stated that Piazzolla wrote as many Tangos as Schubert wrote songs. If this is correct, Piazzolla wrote well over 650 Tangos.)

I do have some bones to pick over Chesky’s production values for this recording. While the piano and instruments are recorded quite well, the choice of a Yamaha piano makes for a clear albeit clangy sound which I find less than ingratiating. While pianist Alison Brewster Franzetti is an excellent musician, I cannot say the same for violinist Hector Falcon who joins her on two compositions. The brochure features a photo of note-writer and co-producer Carlos Franzetti, but lamentably does not bother to explain his relationship with Piazzolla and why he merits a photo. Most frustrating of all, the brochure numbers the compositions 1 - 10, while the CD itself, which assigns a different track to each movement of a multi-movement piece, contains 20 tracks. Only by marking up my liner notes with the correct numbering was I able to figure out what I was listening to.

Quibbles aside, this disc represents a valuable addition to the recorded Piazzolla legacy. It is self-recommending to those who love the composer’s work and wish to explore a lesser-heard side of his genius.

- Jason Serinus -

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"Piazzolla"

Complete Music for Flute and Guitar   Irmgard Toepper, flute; Huga German Gaido, guitar

Naxos; 8.554760

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Piazzolla’s Complete Music for Flute and Guitar offers the Cinco Piezas for guitar (1980), Tango Etudes for Flute, and Histoire du Tango for Flute and Guitar. The third piece, featuring four movements entitled Bordel 1900, Café 1930, Nightclub 1960, and Concert d’aujourd’hui – which aujourd’hui I cannot tell you, because the composition date is not supplied – is especially likable. Though the occasional thwacks on the body of the guitar which Piazzolla scores into his compositions are more like sounds emanating from an S/M outing than from a classical composition, the sonics  are otherwise musically-rewarding if not exceptional. The playing is certainly accomplished, but there are times when I wish for more energy and swing; passages containing repeated notes can seem more plodding than musical. (In her Town Hall farewell recital of 1951, the great soprano Lotte Lehmann, who at age 63 was dealing with a voice of restricted range, performed a Mendelssohn song consisting mainly of repeated notes of the same pitch, and managed to make every note engaging.) These criticisms aside, someone wishing to experience these three unique compositions will find much to enjoy in this recording.

 - Jason Serinus -

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"Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg; Sergio and Adair Assad"

The artists listed in the CD title

Nonesuch; 79505-2

 
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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg;  Sergio and Odair Assad, a recording which seems so sure of itself that it dispenses with both formal title and liner notes, features a trio of stellar, classically-trained musicians who are currently a hot item on the club scene in New York and elsewhere. Upon piercing the veil of mystery, one discovers three superb artists taking a very personal journey through original music inspired by various gypsy melodies and cultures.

For those not so with it as to enable Nonesuch to successfully replace meaningful notes with moody photos, violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg, who began performing in 1981, has performed and recorded any number of major classical violin works. She just won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, and once performed for the White House Arts & Humanities awards. Known, if not notorious for her flamboyant and dramatic performing manner, she was recently the subject of the documentary “Speaking in Strings.” The film, which has garnered excellent reviews, premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and made it onto HBO’s “Signature” channel and into movie houses this past December. Although I did not see it, it won over one previously skeptical San Francisco critic. Regardless of where she hangs her bow, she is a superb violinist.

Sergio and Odair Assad began playing guitar together as young boys, encouraged by their mandolinist father. Having studied as teenagers with a disciple of Segovia, their repertoire ranges from keyboard transcriptions of Baroque works to adaptations of compositions by Gershwin, Ginastera, and Milhaud. Composers Astor Piazzolla, Terry Riley, and a host of others have written music especially for them. (Their recording of Piazzolla’s guitar compositions will be released later this year.) Judging from this recording, their musicianship is certainly the equal of Nadja’s. No matter what emotion is required, and regardless of the technical challenges posed by the rapid passagework in many of the pieces on this disc, these three musicians play faultlessly, producing all the feeling and beauty of tone required to make the music come alive. 

All but one track on this gypsy-inspired CD was written by Sergio Assad; the remaining track was written by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and arranged by Assad. One of Sergio Assad’s compositions is an arrangement of the well-known traditional Andalucian song Los quatros muleros, a flamenco-styled composition which some attribute to Garcia Lorca. Another is a fantasy on the Russian traditional melody Dark Eyes; the rest evidence Turkish, Hungarian, Macedonian, Transylvanian, and other gypsy roots.

Much of this music is as dark and sinewy as the black clothes worn by the artists in their posturing album shots. It is played and recorded so well that it will speak to anyone with either a love for gypsy music or a desire for adventure.

 - Jason Serinus -

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