PIAZZOLLA: Escualo. Vardarito.1,2 Milonga del ángel.1 Las cuatro estaciones porteñas.2 Adiós Nonino. Introducción al ángel.1 Jeanne y Paul.2 Balada para un loco.1,3 Revirado. Fracanapa2 / Tomás Cotik, vln; Tao Lin, pn; 1Jeffrey Kipperman, bs; 2Alex Wadner, Bradley Loudis, perc; 3Alfredo Lerida, speaker / Naxos 8.573789
This is the kind of album I generally pass over for review on principle. Well, actually on two principles: I get bored listening to tango after tango after tango, which I personally don’t feel is a good form for classical composition and which I felt that Astor Piazzolla beat to death, plus the fact that most performances I’ve heard of Piazzolla’s music are pretty boring. But violinist Tomás Cotik emailed me and asked if I would be kind enough to audition this album, and I was so impressed that I became involved in his playing and decided to post my impressions here.
Perhaps one reason I liked these performances so much was that Cotik and Osvaldo Calo arranged these pieces for violin, bass and piano, but surely the main reason is that Cotik is a hell of a violinist who plays with tremendous vitality and rhythmic acuity. In his very able hands, the music practically jumps off his bowstrings, and in the process, both he and pianist Tao Lin sound as if they’re practically dancing as they play. (Well, who knows? Maybe they are. Classical performers nowadays do all kinds of crazy stuff when they play, like wave their hands and arms in the air when singing, or walk and dance around the stage when playing.) But the bottom line is that Cotik, Lin, and bassist Jeffrey Kipperman make of this material a tango festival that sounds much closer to the folk or pop version of the music than usual, and in so doing lift Piazzolla’s pieces out of their usually stodgy atmosphere and place them in the realm of crossover material that works. It is the same kind of enthusiasm and good music ideas that makes the music of Nikolai Kapustin sound so good because it actually sounds like jazz, and jazz rhythm, like popular tango rhythm, is much more infectious than its stuffy academic knock-offs.
A native Argentinean (how did I ever guess?), Tomás Cotik won first prize in the 1997 National Broadcast Music Competition and, oddly enough, the 2003-05 Government of Canada Award. But of course every mother’s child who plays a classical instrument nowadays wins competitions if they’re performing, because if they don’t win competitions they’re not playing, and quite a few of them are, in my opinion, glib robots who just spin out notes at 90 miles per hour. Cotik is not one of these. Just listen, for instance, to the slow, sensual Milonga del ángel for a good example of how well Cotik can draw a sweet legato from his instrument, equaling anything that such masters as Yehudi Menuhin or Jascha Heifetz did in their prime. In addition, he injects a feeling of lightness and fun into the proceedings that most classical fiddlers simply cannot, with the possible exception of Gilles Apap of the Transylvania Mountain Boys.
I do hope that Cotik will consider it a compliment when I say that his playing reminded me of such jazz masters of the violin as Joe Venuti (especially) and Stéphane Grappelli. Certainly, Menuhin himself thought Grappelli one of the greatest violinists of his genre, so much so that he played with him, both in public and on recordings, for a decade. Yehudi never could swing as hard as Stéphane but he gave it the old college try, and in the end he did learn how to improvise. If Cotik ever turned his attention to jazz violin, he’d have absolutely no trouble swinging. He does so here on Las 4 estaciones porteñas, and if he leaves pianist Lin a bit behind that’s OK, because at least he knows how to make this music fly.
When I say that Cotik reminds me more of Venuti than Grappelli it is due to two factors. First, the looseness of Venuti’s rhythm was always a shade wilder and less inhibited than Grappelli, and second, Cotik, like Venuti, has a slightly thinner and brighter tone quality. This is not a negative quality; by employing a somewhat thinner tone, Cotik is able to loosen the rhythm easier and more naturally. Indeed, most classical violinists (and cellists) cannot swing because they are so tone-focused that they can’t loosen the bow tension enough to make their instrument “fly,” and you absolutely have to do this in order to achieve this kind of sound.
As for the music, it’s delightful because of how Cotik plays it. Yes, Piazzolla injected classical development into the tango and milonga, and that’s all well and good, but because they were resolutely tonal (there are no modern harmonies here and only a few moments where he even employed chromaticism, as at the end of the second piece in Estaciones porteñas) it can easily wear on listeners who wants more variance. But as I said earlier, that’s why I’m not normally drawn to Piazzolla as a composer. A little bit of his music goes a long way for me.
We don’t hear bassist Kipperman until track 9, the Introducción al ángel, a slow, moody piece that bears a strong resemblance to both Bach’s Sleepers, Wake and the Villa-Lobos Vocalise. Kipperman thus performs the role of basso continuo—at least, until the tempo suddenly increases by fourfold and both Cotik and Lin play a “hot” chorus, which then falls back to the original pace.
Alfredo Lerida appears as narrator of Balada para un loco, based on the poetry of Horacio Ferrer, but there is no translation or description of the text in the skimpy booklet. Interestingly, Piazzolla himself thought very little of this piece, despite the fact that it became a major hit for him in 1969. Cotik, however, felt that it had to be included because it was one of the Piazzolla pieces he most loves to play. Much more fun to hear is Revirado (Crazy), the opening section of which almost has the feel of film music for a chase scene before settling down into a more lyrical theme. Cotik, Lin and the percussionists close out this set with the effervescent Fracanapa, which moves like a freight train from start to finish. Cotik is at his most daring here, pulling on his violin strings and hitting them with the edge of his bow, and the music practically jumps at you.
A wild and wonderful CD. I’m so glad I decided to review it!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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