The Sound of Argentina – Guitar music by Astor Piazzolla & Ariel Ramírez performed by Sean Shibe with Wallis Giunta & Adam Walker

Histoire du Tango
Maria de Buenos Aires – Yo soy Maria [arr. Clarice Assad]

Ariel Ramírez [transcr. Shibe]
Antiguos duenos de las flechas
Gringa chaquena
Dorotea, la cautiva
Alfonsina y el mar
Juana Azurday

Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano)

Sean Shibe (guitars), Adam Walker (flute)

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 23 August, 2021
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Sean Shibe, together with two rather special friends, presented a typically enterprising programme of Argentinian chamber music to a well-filled Cadogan Hall on Monday lunchtime. It was his Proms debut, and a beguiling celebration of works by centenarians Astor Piazzolla and Ariel Ramírez that avoided easy cliches of surface colour and splashy flamboyance in Latin American music.

Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango charts the changing styles of Argentine tango over his lifetime. Just over twenty minutes long and in four movements it shows the evolution of the form from working-class dance music popular in brothels to polite concert listening.  It is an abstraction of the tango sound into a classical form written for acoustic guitar and flute, and Shibe was joined by the excellent Adam Walker in a performance notable for its introspective delicacy and intimate playing. ‘Bordello 1900’ was full of grace and liveliness, ‘Café 1930’ had subtle changes of tempo and shifts of colour, and ‘Night Club 1960’, probably Piazzolla’s portrait of himself in tango history, had rhythmic contrasts and subtle hints of jazz and bossa nova. The closing ‘Modern Day Concert’ was freewheeling and more obviously cool. Throughout, Shibe’s attention to detail and control of timbre, and Walker’s flute, both impish and caressing in turn, gave great pleasure.       

After that, Shibe and Walker were joined by Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, who made a very favourable impression at the 2018 Proms in a programme of Bernstein songs, also at the Cadogan Hall. Her voice is rich at the bottom and bright at the top, and suits this music well.  They began with ‘Yo soy Maria’ from Piazzolla’s surreal tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires about the life – and afterlife – of a Buenos Aires prostitute, with Giunta perky as well as seductive.

Ariel Ramírez, whose Missa Criolla achieved popularity in the 1960s with a famous Phillips recording, was more interested in Argentine folk music rather than pure tango. Shibe has transcribed five of his songs into a most effective suite that celebrates five powerful women from Argentine history. The first, ‘Antiguos dueños de las flechas’ (Former Owner of the Arrows), is an extract from the Missa Criolla and found Shibe switching to electric guitar and Giunta providing her own percussion accompaniment. With its glowering drone devices and gentle percussive effects, it is a powerful piece that brought to my mind, at least, Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent with its evocation of the lost world of the first peoples of Latin America. Flute and acoustic guitar returned for ‘Gringa chaqueña’, about women settlers in the swamps of the Chaco region, with guitar especially beautiful in the opening phrases.

‘Dorotea, la cautiva’ was again about indigenous peoples and colonial invaders, but with a twist as Dorotea, a rescued European woman, yearns to return to the world of the Ranquel people where she has spent most of her life with Giunta bringing out the strong feelings of longing in the music. ‘Alfonsina y el mar’ is a tribute to the Argentinian poet and feminist Alfonsina Stormi who committed suicide by drowning in 1938 and, in this, Giunta made sense of the words to particularly moving effect. Shibe and Walker mined the accompaniment’s vein of melancholia throughout and the central interlude for guitar and flute was haunting. The closing ‘Juana Azurday’ about an 18th-century woman general saw Giunta in powerful declamatory form, and putting in a turn as a spirited percussionist. It’s an impressive suite that deserves to have a further life. All in all, it was a persuasive recital that avoided the stereotypes of Latin Americana and showed that, in this music, concentration can be just as compelling as intensity.

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