Feature Review: Astor Piazzolla & Pablo Neruda

Written by: Edward Clark

The sounds of Astor Piazzolla and the words of Pablo Neruda

Charles Dance (reciter)

Soundstage Ensemble:

Tom Pigott-Smith, Laura Samuel, Everton Nelson & Gregory Warren Wilson (violins)

Nick Barr & Emlyn Singleton (violas)

David Daniels (cello)

Richard Pryce (double bass)

Simon Stewart (soprano saxophone)

Michael Ward-Bergemann (accordion)

4 May 2006, Union Chapel, Islington, London

This innovative event was a tribute by Tom Pigott-Smith (artistic director), Charles Dance, and friends, to two creative spirits from Latin America: composer Astor Piazzolla and poet Pablo Neruda.

The venue was the cavernous, redbrick Victorian Gothic Union Chapel in Islington, London. Its high tower makes it an unmissable landmark from the outside; within, it is built around a central atrium, over which the tower disappears above. The stained-glass windows have an imposing design very much of their time. This makes for a formidable setting for a concert, although here the amplification of the voice tended to obscure the words, and hence the meaning, of the poetry.

Astor Piazzolla, composer, instrumentalist and bandleader (1921-1992) is the most famous and important Tango composer. He transformed the traditional tango into something more modern by incorporating elements from jazz and classical music (Nuevo Tango), but was berated in the process for elevating this basic dance to an art form and even threatened with ex-communication for his trouble!

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) developed a career in the diplomatic service which allowed foreign travel; he eventually became a communist and fell out with the newly installed right-wing government in the 1940s before later questioning his left-wing beliefs. The poems of Neruda (who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971) reflect on his childhood and on the changes that gripped Chile during his lifetime.

It was thoughtful to arrange as a pre-concert curtain-raiser, an introduction by Gregory Warren-Wilson to the tango as dance with musical illustrations of the various forms the melodies take: “tango dance-music developed way beyond what was expected by the dancers.”

Both Piazzolla and Neruda share a deep understanding of the human condition, their work being, as a result, poignantly candid and deceptively simple. A whole evening of discovering their inter-linking artistic output, therefore, produced a certain sameness and monotony with little genuine depth of expression – due mainly to the lack of development in the musical and poetic material.

As mentioned earlier, the difficulty in understanding the full meaning of the poems was a great pity; more care before the concert on the subject of clarity would surely have solved this problem. The distinguished actor, Charles Dance, spoke with great care and much feeling, always over an often-soft musical accompaniment. In between the poems came a range of Piazzolla’s works including Tango Ballet and Angel Suite, all arranged by Pigott-Smith for string octet with soprano saxophone and accordion.

The playing was exquisite and full of eloquence, maintaining the varying rhythms of the tango style, sometimes lively, more often soft and smoochy. Each made a fine impression on the human sensibility. The second half contained Piazzolla’s Four Seasons in Buenos Aires transcribed by Pigott-Smith from the arrangement by Leonid Desnyatikov.

Credit is due to all concerned. Given such dedication to Argentina’s great gift to music by British artists in London, it can only be surmised how Argentinean performers would cope with, say, Morris Dancing in Buenos Aires! Or, at the very least, folk-song arrangements by Vaughan Williams.

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