Astor Piazzolla
© Public Domain

It’s not given to many composers to stamp their name on a genre so completely that it’s forever associated with them. Astor Pantaleon Piazzolla, born 100 years ago today, did just that with the style of Argentine tango, blending jazz and other styles to turn it into his own sophisticated “Nuevo tango”, which conquered the world in spite of alarming the traditionalists back home in Argentina. (He’s also one of a select few composers to have an international airport named after him, in Mar del Plata).

To start you off with celebrating his centenary, here’s the man himself, playing the wistful Oblivion on his favoured instrument, the bandoneon.

Piazzolla has inspired generations of players of the many members of the accordion family, not least the wonderful Ksenija Sidorova, here playing Oblivion with another of our favourite young musicians of today, cellist Stjepan Hauser. I’m unspeakably jealous of anyone who made it to Croatia’s spectacular Arena Pula for this 2018 concert: this is Piazzolla’s melancholia at its finest.

Here’s Astor himself again with his quintet. Although he complained that unlike the cheerful accordion, the bandoneon is “diabolic” and “has nothing happy in it”, his Adiós Nonino sounds decidedly upbeat, at least in parts.

Amd here is that interview, in which Piazzolla does his level best to put off anyone else who might be so deluded as to attempt to learn the bandoneon, together with a great performance of Zero Hour, written late in his life.

Piazzolla was neither the first nor the last composer to write a series of pieces denoted “the four seasons”, but you wouldn’t mistake his Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”) for anyone else’s, even when played by a conventional classical orchestra as it is here, by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw in 2015. Piazzolla scrambles the order of the seasons, so the dramatic “Spring”, played here, is the third movement.

One of Piazzolla’s most played works is also in four parts – but was conceived that way from the start. Written in 1986, the Histoire du Tango is a kind of retrospective of his previous work and how it evolved with the different genres into which he came into contact. Although Piazzolla wrote Histoire du Tango for flute and guitar, it’s been played by countless different combinations of other instruments. Here’s the third movement, Night Club, 1960, in its original version, played by Christian Rivet and peerless flautist Emmanuel Pahud.

In his thirties, Piazzolla engaged in a serious spell of studying classical composition, winning a grant to study at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger. He came out of this with a collection of new compositional tools, evident in the fugue that forms part of Piazzolla’s only opera (or, to be more precise, what he described as a “tango operita”), Maria de Buenos Aires. Here it is, performed in 2019 at the Staunton Festival in the USA.

He says in his memoirs that he was desperately embarrassed about admitting to Boulanger that he was a tango composer, but that when he eventually succumbed and played “his own” music to her, she was enthralled. The number that so enraptured Boulanger was Triunfal. To show how readily his music adapts to other instruments, here’s a solo guitar version.

Piazzolla’s music has been embraced by musicians from many different genres. The thing is, they all end up sounding like, well, Piazzolla. Here’s guitarist Al Di Meola, best known in the jazz-fusion genre in which he can be one of the fastest and flashiest of all, tackling the slow number Milonga del Angel (a milonga is a dance of similar origin to the tango but with its own distinct steps). Di Meola also did a great version of this in Leverkusen in 2006, which you can see here.

Libertango is probably Piazzolla’s most famous piece of all, partly because it has the feature that you can actually dance ballroom tango to it (not always a given with Piazzolla). It’s been recorded in just about every instrument combination you can think of, from full symphony orchestra to guitar quartet to solo piano. Here are the Swingle Singers, doing their “no instruments were used in this film” thing with Libertango, which has turned into one their biggest hits.

To finish off, here’s the track that first introduced me to Libertango: Grace Jones’ night club version from the 1980s (turn the volume up!):

When I need energising, Libertango wins every time. When I’m sad and need catharsis, no music does it better than Oblivion. Happy birthday, Astor.