Expressia: Tangos and Fantasies

Cadence Ensemble (Signum Classics SIGCD140)

30 November 2008 2 stars

Expressia

Cadence Ensemble's Tangos & Fantasies has a deceptively promising opening in the electrifying Escualo (Ritmo Libre). This track fuses mercurially changing rhythms with a zesty timbric combination: piano and guitar play the rhythmic outline in dry, sharply defined chords while the accordion and violin spin out the melody in unison. The sound of this has an irresistibly eastern feeling about it which bodes well for an album of Piazzolla pieces played by Armenian musicians.

Piazzolla's New Tango is a most eclectic genre, drawing from jazz, folk and classical influences; it is therefore apt that it should capture the imagination of a group of Armenian musicians searching to establish their cultural identity through different genres. Yet the good vibe of Escualo vanishes with the beginning of the second track, never to return again. The second and third track are respectively called Romance del Diablo and Tango del Diablo—but alas, there is no devil to speak of. Romance is a rather long number consisting of a lamentuous duet between violin and accordion, underpinned by a slowly undulating piano and guitar accompaniment—one keeps waiting for a flicker of Escualo-type flair to light up the atmosphere, to no avail.

Tango del Diablo is equally disappointing—the promising start soon gives way to a slow section where the violin indulges in many whining glissandi— a real cop-out which the return of the opening tango can hardly fix. Poem is again slow and sentimental, with an extended Burt Bacharach-type piano solo on which the instruments start to slowly pile on one by one, no doubt attempting to build an emotional climax that is made impossible by the utter indolence of the piece.

Things seem to pick up again with the intriguingly titled Muerte del Angel—the death of an angel being here curiously more vibrant than a devil's tango. The piano and violin play a single, sharply rhythmic melody which—as often with Piazzolla—has the assertiveness of a Bachian fugue subject. This is underpinned by the bass col legno attacks and implemented by the imitative entry of accordion and guitar. A welcomed return of genuine vigour—but again, it does not last: after less than a minute and a half, the violin flags with a descending slow glissando not unlike the last sigh of an out-of-battery walkman, and we are faced with yet another whine from accordion and piano, which again is followed by an unconvincing return of the initial tango.

The Concerto para Quinteto, which closes the string of Piazzolla numbers on the CD, is again woefully predictable in its following of the 'lively-slow-lively' formula. One wonders why, while none of the slow numbers are enlivened by a passionate middle-section, the fiery pieces are unremittingly destined to wind down into laments. The following two offer a little eclecticism and a slight perk: Gardel's famous Tango Por Una Cabeza, is endowed with a very beautiful melody, and Armenian composer Narine Zarifyan's Tango Expressia is the best track on the CD; taut, lively and untainted by sentimental slips—although uncannily closer to Piazzolla in style than to Armenian music.

One wishes the CD could close here, and yet there are still two tracks to go. Hector Stamponi's Tango El Ultimo Cafe has the overly sweet flavour of Romance del Diablo and Poem, and while Cadence Ensemble could really do with a few fireworks to see this last track off, Gershwin's Fantasy on Themes of Porgy and Bess is again dominated by slack sentimentalism—this despite the haunting beauty of the original songs. The closing section of the track—a rendition of 'It ain't necessarily so' sounds tired and devoid of any of Gershwin's sweet irony.

Cadence Ensemble's album really brings home a strong sense of anticlimax. All that we associate with Piazzolla—taut rhythm, passion, explosive energy—appears here washed out by a sentimentality that borders on self-indulgence. The absence of Armenian music, which would have been a breath of fresh air in such an over trodden territory as Piazzolla, detracts further from the overall result. It is a pity, for the musicians are all first rate—yet their joint efforts fail to produce the spark needed when engaging in the wild sensuousness of Tango.

By Delia Casadei