Thursday, July 09, 2009
Raras Partituras 4 – Horacio Salgán (Epsa Music 2008)
Pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Horacio Salgán marked his 90th birthday in 2006, and the nonprofit musical organization TangoVia Buenos Aires has been celebrating the milestone with a series of musical events, including concerts, film productions, and the recent release of this interesting recording. Salgán is one of the last living masters from the heyday of the genre: aside from his innovative orquesta work from the 1940s, he is also a founding member of the Quinteto Real, a cornerstone ensemble of post-golden age tango that is still active today in various formations (though no longer featuring Salgán himself at the piano). Several of Salgán’s compositions, including “Don Agustín Bardi” and “A fuego lento,” have become standard repertoire, and his work as an arranger is widely considered just as musically significant as his composing. His musical voice is distinctly but subtly modern, incorporating innovative melodic, harmonic, and formal features into the core gestural vocabulary of tango without embracing the more jarring kinds of musical ruptures favored by Piazzolla and some of his followers. Indeed, whereas one could argue that Piazzolla’s musical innovations only supercharged the already existing features of the genre’s core emotional vocabulary—passion, violence, oblivion—Salgán’s music expanded that vocabulary such that it could account for things like joy and exhilaration, resulting in an at times “happy tango” sound that would be something of an oxymoron in any less capable hands.
All this and more is on display in this album, the latest in a series that began with violinist Ramiro Gallo’s excellent recording of the same name, which I would translate as “unusual scores” (Epsa Music 2006). And the album is a bit unusual. Divided into three parts, the first 10 tracks feature new studio performances of Salgán’s solo piano music, most if not all of which has only previously been heard by Salgán’s students or close associates. The second part features four of Salgán’s compositions and/or arrangements for orquesta típica and other instrumental configurations from the 1940s and 50s, recorded live at a recent concert by the Gran Orquesta TangoVia under the direction of Salgán’s son César, who also plays piano with the group. The final three tracks of the album are indeed “unusual scores,” or, as the case may be, unusual archival recordings, which Salgán’s deliberately selected from his private collection for the occasion of this release. These include Salgán’s first commercial recording (a Brazilian chorro!), a previously unreleased 1946 demo of Salgán’s “Mis calles porteñas” (a solo piano arrangement of which starts off the album), and a 30 some year old home recording of an organ fueled jazz waltz dedicated to César Salgán.
The scope and range of Salgán’s musical appetite is immediately evident in the solo piano music included here. Nicely performed by Andrés Linetzky, one of the few important pianists active in the contemporary tango scene to have studied directly with Salgán, these pieces at once bring to mind the Romantic grandiosity of Gershwin, the intricate playfulness of Joplin, and even the wide-intervaled modernism of Herbie Hancock’s classic Blue Note recordings. The eclecticism of this material, which includes not only tangos but also zambas (a genre of Argentine folkloric music) and some Brazilian forms, is such that one could not be faulted for forgetting that this music is by one of the foremost composers of modern tango; the telltale síncopa accompaniment patterns and other typical gestures of the genre can be heard in these pieces, though often well below the surface. Such is not the case of the ensemble music included later in the recording, where the varied instrumentation of the larger orquesta brings out the driving bite of what are often rather cerebral compositions and arrangements. This is where Salgán’s unique contributions to the genre can most easily be heard and appreciated. Take, for example, his arrangement of the Expósitos’ hyper-standard “Naranjo en flor” (1944). Usually a vehicle for the kind of “grasa” vocal performances that are both the best and the worst thing about tango, here the orquesta supports the singer with an almost organically developing accompaniment that makes the rather unusual features of the arrangement—the countermelodies that extend across vocal phrases, the dense passages of rhythmic counterpoint—sound as if they were standard practice. These same tendencies can be heard in Salgán’s arrangement of De Caro’s “Flores negras” for piano and strings, though here the intricacy of the musical ideas at times bog down the overall flow of the piece.
This, of course, is the risk that Salgán necessarily takes with his particular musical approach, which, when considered in broader perspective, speaks to both the appeal and the somewhat polemic aspect of his musical legacy as a whole. While he is now clearly entrenched within the tango canon (as evidenced by connoisseur recordings such as this), many tango listeners continue to be somewhat reluctant if not suspicious about his work, feeling that his modernist tendencies depart too far from the popular musical roots of the genre. Either way, this recording clearly demonstrates that it is worth giving even the most “unusual” aspects of Salgán’s complex musical world another careful listen.