December 1999

Rudolph Werthen, I Fiamminghi
Telarc CD-80526
Released: 1999

by Todd Warnke

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]From a beginning of Iberian, African and Cuban roots, tango emerged as the blues of Argentina, a folk idiom that expressed both the pain and fears, and the hopes and joys of the underclass. Emerging in the late 1800s, it was first confined to the urban, immigrant poor of Buenos Aires. Played on guitar, violin, bass, the occasional piano, but most notably the bandoneon (a variation on the accordion), the music was earthy and given to sudden rhythmic twists and contrasts. And, like the blues, it was overtly sexual music.

An early 1900s trip backwards across the Atlantic took some of the edge off tango, but in doing so popularized the form beyond its birthplace. By the mid ‘20s, tango was a part of international ballroom competition, and from there it was a short step to bit parts in the concert hall where the expressive elements of tango were employed by composers as diverse as Satie, Stravinsky, Albeniz and Walton. But even here tango remained but a spice, and a well-ground one at that. It wasn’t until Astor Piazzolla emerged on the international scene in the ‘60s that a true synthesis of tango and the concert hall occurred.

What set Piazzolla apart were four things. First, an Argentine, his connection to tango was deep and natural. Second, he understood the central passion and desperation that informs tango and always remained true to that spirit even as he wove fugues and counterpoint into the traditional fabric. In other words, while making it more sophisticated and fabricating the nuevo tango, he never lost the central passions of viejo tango. Third, he was an astounding composer and musician who knew exactly how to navigate the rhythmic twists of tango and translate those sudden jumps to a concert setting. And fourth, he made this his life’s work, a main course and not a side dish or spice. The result was a body of work that exceeded 750 published pieces, many of which have risen to the level of international standards.

Still, these works have best and usually been played by Argentines or in small settings. To ask a European orchestra to play the subtle but vital changes of tango, which means to musically understand the street origins and danger of tango, is akin to asking a Boston blueblood to understand the music of the Gamelan. While it’s possible, there’s almost always a feel of mental translation rather than direct communication. And yet to succeed in tango requires nothing if not directness.

So does it work? Do I Fiamminghi successfully bond the concert hall to the earthy passion of tango?

Absolutely. The blend is upscale for sure, but it is also extremely emotive and powerful. The first thing to make it work is to bring world-class Argentine musicians in to front the orchestra. Juan Jose Mosalini plays the bandoneon, Osvaldo Calo the piano, Leonardo Sanchez the guitar, Otto Derolez the violin and Gyorgy Schweigert the bass. On several others tracks Laura Fernandez Lahera sings, Fulvio Paredes adds his guitar, and Eduardo Baro narrates. By employing these fine musicians as the front line and employing I Fiamminghi as background or continuo, both the direct earthiness and the elegance of dancehall tango are preserved.

The next thing I Fiamminghi do right is to choose superb compositions. Eleven of the 13 tracks were composed by Piazzolla, with one of those compositions featuring a text by Jorge Luis Borges. The remaining two pieces are "A Homero," with lyrics by Catulo Castillo and music by Anibal Troilo, and "Caseron de Tejas," with lyrics by Castillo and music by Sebastian Piana." All 13 compositions are compelling, but also offer various insights into the entire genre. "A Homero," a guitar and vocal track, is an elegy to Homero Manzione, a celebrated mid-century tango lyricist by two of his friends, and is both simple and beautiful, while the following track, "El Tango," the Piazzolla/Borges composition, is a full explication of the dangers and attraction of Tango. Full of twists and a certain edge of the night balance, it distills the melodrama of tango into a six-minute history. The remaining tunes cover the territory between these two examples with equal skill.

As for the sound of the disc, it was recorded using the Sony DSD system. This edition was mixed down to the Red Book 16/44.1 CD standard using Sony’s Direct SBM mastering. As you’d expect with such a pedigree the sound is superb, with the guitar work, especially, of reference quality.

If you have interest in tango, this is the perfect entry point. And if you already know tango well, while more upscale than most, this is a must have collection of superbly performed and recorded essentials. Most highly recommended.