Gimme that old-time Espana


Nancy Tsou

Move Records MCD 619

With her latest CD, Tsou is using the word ‘Latin’ in a trans-continental sense. At the start, she plays three familiar works by the Argentinian tango explorer, Astor Piazzolla; she concludes with another set of three pieces by the much more talented Argentinian writer, Alberto Ginastera. In the centre, we are treated to much well-circulated material in two works each by Granados, Falla and Albeniz – foundation-stones of 20th century Spanish music. The whole collection of a dozen tracks adds up to a little under 46 minutes but it has some interesting points – for me, these arise in the Ginastera Op. 2, the youngest music on the CD as it came from the composer’s 21st year.

Even at this early stage, you can relish the driving rhythmic energy, clear-voiced melodies and added-note harmonic clusters to be found in Ginastera’s masterworks like the contemporaneous Panambi ballet – a thunderbolt from my mid-adolescence when extracts appeared on Goossens’ 1958 recording alongside a truncated version of Antill’s Corroboree – and the more sophisticated 1953 Variaciones concertantes. These Danzas Argentinas begin with a Dance of the old herdsman – a particularly spry senior, it seems, with a taste for the bitonal as the right hand plays white notes exclusively while the left hand stays on the black with very few deviations. Tsou handles this with a clever mixture of restraint and jauntiness, my only problem her slight deceleration in tempo about 12 bars in after a very brisk opening. But the cross-rhythms are treated with excellent command.

The second dance, that of the Delightful Young Lady (more ‘elegant’, I would have thought), is a languid piece in 6/8 during which the melody gains an additional line that moves in 4ths and 5ths, acquires full chord status before sinking back to its quieter beginnings. The piece is more than a little suggestive of Piazzolla, albeit some decades earlier, and Tsou performs it with excellent malleability of its basic elements. Finally, Danza del gaucho matrero proves to be the most emphatically characteristic Ginastera work of the three with a welter of cross-rhythms to begin which Tsou complicates even more by adding in her own sforzandi; followed by a move into less bitonal territory and a clear tune weltered out on top of the constant whirl of a bass line. This interpretation is long on excitement if not on clarity, but then the composer was clearly intent on whipping up energy and bota-stamping enthusiasm, even if you had to keep an eye out for melodic syncopations that left-foot you and your expectations of predictability.

Those of us dedicated to the Australian Chamber Orchestra through successes and missteps became pretty familiar with Piazzolla at his best when Scots accordionist James Crabb collaborated with Richard Tognetti and his amiable band in a concert tour many years ago, the outcome one CD in 2003, Song of the Angel, and another two years later – Tango Jam, Vol. 1. Crabb is back this February for the first of the ACO national series concerts in a program that includes Libertango (still to be heard on the Tango Jam CD). Tsou’s two other Piazzollas – Oblivion and Milonga del Angel – also appeared on the ACO/Crabb 2003 recording.

This CD begins with Oblivion and Tsou handles it without any complications, but also without much interest. The composer’s melancholy melody is strait-jacketed into a shape where its sudden semiquaver bursts disappear and unexciting quavers balance each other in every second bar; the piece needs some bite but in this approach it suffers from an excess of rubato and a cloying lushness in the harmonic arrangement. Not much different comes in the Milonga where the harmonies are smoothed into cocktail bar inoffensiveness. Tsou’s ornamentation is welcome if not as spiky as I would have preferred and only a few liberties are taken with the metre. Libertango comes across as – eventually – clumsy. Tsou’s opening sounded fair enough as she worked through an extended introduction before hitting the chief melody, but at a few spots the rhythm paused while a glissando was negotiated with too much care, or a register move wasn’t snatched but proved ponderous. It’s a dance,. after all, and you have to provide certainty to the punters involved in this exhibition of self-indulgent strutting.

Granados appeared first in the Spanish contingent with his Spanish Dance Andaluza, fifth in the 12 Spanish Dances collection of 1890; not from the two Op. 37 dances as listed here, I believe. This is a familiar piece, Tsou tending to elongate the first downbeat notes in some bars – like the first. The interpretation is highly coloured, even if one of my favourite details goes missing: the little semiquaver figure that ends bars 16 and 17, in which the lower right-hand notes do not sound most of the time. Then, what to make of Tsou’s reading of the Intermezzo from Goyescas? Any suggestion of guitar pizzicato is absent, ritenuti are inserted at will. syncopations are mushy, the counter-melody that takes over at bar 40 is over-emphasized, the few fortissimo explosions are not emphatic enough, and the overall approach lacks firmness.

The Falla brace begins with an extract from The Three-Cornered Hat ballet, the Miller’s Dance which must feature among the composer’s most well-known works. Tsou makes a firm case for this boldly-contoured set of pages with no complaints coming to disrupt attention until the final accelerando which could have been less slow to take off. There’s no indication as to where this CD was recorded, nor by whom, but this particular track lacks acoustic resonance and would have gained from a favouring of sympathetic upper strings for a piano piece that stays firmly in the middle to low instrumental ranges. As for the second track, this is labelled La vida breve; it turns out to be only the Spanish Dance No. 1 from that opera’s score and the performance is a mixed bag with some nimble finger-work early on alongside some labouring when sections draw to a close. Most surprising of all is the conclusion that Tsou provides which is a light tinkle to round off the Animando poco a poco stretch; of the final Piu vivo 17/18 bars which usually bring this extract to a rousing conclusion, there is no sign.

Prelude/Asturias/Leyenda by Albeniz is one of the most popular pieces of Spanish music – up there with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez middle movement and De los alamos vengo, madre – but you can see pretty quickly why it’s such a gift for guitarists. Tsou has the usual trouble in negotiating those full-blooded right-hand chords between bars 25 and 45, later bars 147 to 167: it’s very hard to make the jumps and keep in time. But her handling of the middle cantando (bars 63 to 122) is excellent, part from a tendency to cut short the rests after each fermata. Most of the staccato running line is clear and clean. Finally, No. 3 in Albeniz’s Chant’s d’Espagne finishes of the echt-Spanish tracks. Sous le palmier receives a fine interpretation, packed with atmosphere and highly responsive to the composer’s tango rhythmic underpinning but rhythmically fluid, Tsou secure enough to follow her instincts in shaping the melody line and inserting some subtle hesitations throughout this most successful of her essays in ye (comparatively) olde-time Spanish music.

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