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APRIL 2018 | Language of the Heart | Santiago Quartet | Arrastre Records

APRIL 2018 | Language of the Heart | Santiago Quartet | Arrastre Records

By RAY PICOT

Listening to The Language of the Heart, the sophomore album of the Santiago Quartet, there is little doubting their heart-beat comes from the rhythms of Latin-America. Their first album, Latin Perspective, featuring virtuoso guitarist Ahmed Dickinson, received widespread critical praise, and now they spotlight the iconic music of Astor Piazzolla, and the British composer, Will Todd.

In recent years the record companies have focused much on concertos and arrangements in symphonic form, but whilst not doubting Piazzolla’s genius and versatility, the real heart of his expression seems to be most perfectly realised in the chamber format, thinking of course of his own quintet, where he performed as the bandoneon player. Interestingly Piazzolla’s last album was Five Tango Sensations, where he performed alongside the ubiquitous Kronos Quartet, which seemed to perfectly distill in terms of soundscape what he was trying to achieve, albeit as 'musical farewell farewell to life'. It is to this instrumental combination that this superlative album from the Santiago Quartet and the tango specialist and bandoneon player, Julian Rowlands, is posited.

So I start by looking at Five Tango Sensations, from which the new album features 'Anxiety', although not the opening track of the album. This attractive and lesser-known piece is written with a pensive, almost downbeat expression, and with direct comparison to the composer’s own recording one is immediately aware of the sheer sonic presence of the newcomer, and strong feeling of the underlying tensions. The interpretation is faithful but it is also clear that these musicians have their own ideas, utilising a slower tempo, which gives them more space to properly explore the tensions in the piece to very good effect. My only regret is that they did not record the entire suite!

This track is followed by a warmly reflective version of the better-known 'Oblivion'; arranged by Julian Rowlands. The musicians show a depth of emotional commitment without ever losing the natural flow of this justly popular work. Their reading is fast becoming one of my favourite recorded versions, which is also my view of their interpretation of the title piece, Cuatro estaciones porteñas. This work has appeared in so many different arrangements over the years, that it is easy to overlook its originality, but once more I feel that less is more, as the arrangement by the quartet with Cesar Olguin, hits the mark. Julian Rowlands really understands this genre, avoiding it sounding too ‘classical’, which suits these characterful pieces. In this work the interplay of the individual members of the quartet and the bandoneon is most effectively realised. I have heard a number of versions of the individual movements played by Piazzolla, rather than the complete work, but this reading proudly stands up in comparison, not least because of the freshness of the arrangement, balancing the aims of the different seasons with the overall concept as a suite. I have played the piece on repeat several times and keep coming across new things which are missed in many big-boned arrangements, as these musicians really get under the skin of the music. Whilst the music stands at a crossroads between more popular and ‘classical’ genres, the musicians avoid any trace of superficiality to find its emotional heart, contrasting achingly reflective moments with the right amount of drive in the faster sections, and real pazzaz. The musicians achieve so much with a lightness of touch, never overdoing the effects inherent in these pieces that reinforce their character as Nuevo Tango. Among the many felicities, just take the lovely subtle string pizzicato two minutes into 'Autumn' and a couple of minutes later some delightful interactive soloing underpinned by the bandoneon. This is truly a recording that one can live with, and credit should be given to the beautiful arrangement by Cesar Olguín and the Santiago Quartet, who also provide a well-balanced and moody Milonga del Angel.

The concluding work is a piece commissioned by the Quartet from Will Todd, entitled The Birthday Quartet. From the richness of the Piazzolla arrangements, a most effective foil is achieved by ending on this fascinating piece, in which to paraphrase what the quartet say in their notes, the composer subtlely balances over its three movements, the contrasting rich choral voicing and unrelenting jazz rhythms. Todd responds effectively to the movements' titles, 'Heart-Beat', 'Love Song' and 'In God My Hope', in what I found a most rewarding example of modern string writing that was not afraid to embrace melody.

Throughout this album one feels the sheer musicality of the artists, who respond to the music with spontaneity; it is an album that wears a smile, enhanced by an excellent production in the Piazzolla pieces, by the Mercury-Award-winning producer Gerry Diver, that balances all the musicians so well, and spotlights the solos without overwhelming the ensemble. Added to which, succinct and informative booklet notes are provided. Furthermore, this album has been made in collaboration with and in aid of MIND, the mental health charity, with 10% of the sales being donated; another good reason, if you need one, to buy or download this life-affirming album. 

 

 

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