Initially, it appeared under my radar on Facebook as it was being shared in the German-speaking tango community. Having previously purchased their 2014 album 5 Al Tango, I went on a hunt to get this CD as well. After all, the band appears in my sets with consistency, and so I was expecting a fresh batch of dancing delights.
A delight this album is without a doubt. One must accept, however, that it was recorded in August 2020 when the dance floors have long emptied out due to the COVID interregnum. Whether that had any impact on the band's choice of songs and arrangement, I do not know. Either way, we have here a mix of tangos, two valses, and several "tango nuevos" in the tradition of of Horacio Salgán and Astor Piazzolla.
A dedication to Piazzolla is contained in the CD booklet. It is not just the later-years Piazzolla the general public knows best but also arrangements from his "Típica" period, e.g. the track Villeguita that he recorded in 1948 when people were presumably still dancing in BsAs. A cover of that is a genuine rarity, unlike covers of Zum or Melancólico Buenos Aires that for some reason still fascinate modern-day tango musicians.
Before delving into the music in detail, I want to highlight the technical mastery of the Quinteto. I make no secret of my admiration towards German bands (e.g. Sexteto Cristal, another group from Hamburg that shares the bandoneonist Christian Gerber with the Quinteto) and can appreciate, as a former musician, the skill and hard work that went into recording this album. Their delivery is flawless.
I will talk about the music selectively, focusing only on the tracks that I could use for DJing later. This is not to subtract from the value the album offers as a whole. This blog is about music for dancing. A curious listener is encouraged to ignore my commentary and seek enjoyment in all the tracks according to taste.
A word of caution: with the single exception of Hotel Victoria, the arrangements go way beyond simplicity of straight dance music and would impress even a demanding listener of classical music. You'll hear plenty notes flowing in elaborate patterns and counter-patterns; harmonies that are often enriched to sound alien, as only Salgán and Piazzolla could do it, and rhythmical horseplay that puts the leader on his toes frequently.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let's go!
Pobre gallo bataraz is a genuine rarity. It's not the tango that D'Agostino recorded with Vargas but a fast vals. It was recorded in late 1970s by the singers Juárez and Goyeneche with their respective orchestras, however this interpretation bears little resemblance to either.
The booklet says the arrangement is Salgán's. I haven't found his recording of it in the web databases and presume he didn't (but then, who did he arrange it for?). I do find Salgán's signature present. No need to fear, however: the drive constant from beginning to end, and the melodic material is catchy if a little intellectual as one might expect.
Gran Hotel Victoria is by far the dancing peak of the album. While the arrangement is allegedly by Salgán again, it's remarkably playful and clear. The dancing couple will be propelled by delightfully sharp accents that come on the beat and as the tempo is close to the normal walking beat of 60 BPM, there'll be time to indulge in occasional footplay without hindering the ronda flow. I took enormous pleasure in the interplay of the instruments taking turns in leading and conversing with one another. Their virtuosity did not come at the expense of the dancer but for his or her benefit.
Having been one of the most frequently recorded songs, Hotel Victoria by the Quinteto still managed to seduce me, which is as strong testament about how good they are as there can be.
Tierra querida, a Julio de Caro tune immortalized by Pugliese in 1944. Interestingly, Piazzolla's típica recorded it, too, a few years later, and it's not too terrible - a bit straighter than Pugliese, and still rich in phrasing and expression; I bet that a normal dancer would never guess Piazzolla could sound like that.
I don't know to which influence would the Quinteto attribute its own arrangement. I like it a great deal: the playful staccatos, the heart-felt legatos, the interplay of instruments - and that its beat is mostly regular and predictable despite the phrasing which, with less discipline, would be so easy to overdo with massive rubatos.
Villeguita is Piazzolla's original he recorded in 1948 with his Típica. For whom, I wonder? It's temperamental, swift piece with dubious emotional appeal. Its saving grace might be in an occasional violin solo. And yet I'm not sure I'd be able to endure it as a dancer. I don't know how else to put it: the melodic payload is boring.
It would be fascinating to hear it re-imagined by a group of bleeding hearts such as Romantica Milonguera. The Quinteto is way more analytical and precise than them, of course, and so they give it the technical treatment. And listening to it right after the Piazzolla's original, I readily admit it's actually quite interesting and better than the source material.
Emilio Balarce's La bordona was recorded three times by Troilo, and each version is a massive orchestral affair. I prefer the first but love all of them, if mostly just for listening. I don't know how but the Quinteto managed to create a comparably vast soundscape with a lot fewer musicians at hand than Troilo had available. It's a majestic tune, very slow at 45 BPM and perhaps only ever intended as a show piece but very tempting thanks to its beauty.
The vals Loca de amor, although reportedly also been inspired by Salgán's arrangement but not actively harmed by it nonetheless, is delightful and sharp. Yes, the harmonies are at times a bit weird and the final modulation from A to F sounds forced ("let's keep it simple", Salgán never said). What offsets it more than sufficiently are its excellent drive and "kick" that it loans to the dancer. The Quinteto is known for its love for valses, according to this interview, and it shows.
If Piazzolla and Salgán ever got drunk together (I can't definitely say they didn't) and, inebriated, decided what a cool idea would be to arrange a milonga together, it might've very well sounded like De vuelta y media. It is in my estimation the most "controversial" piece of the album when viewed from the prism of a milonguero. It is a milonga, yes: it has the underlying milonga beat, it goes forward at 106 BPM without stopping along the way. And yet, it is as foreign in character as it could get without migrating to another genre.
I don't know how to put it words so let's dance around it briefly. I think the ideal milonga has a simple, straightforward appeal. It could be "happy" or "sad" but never too "smart". Half of the leaders sit it out anyway, and the remaining half has its feet full of work keeping up with the tempo. No brain cells left to process complicated musical phrases, in my opinion.
De vuelta y media is anything but simple. I was once dressed down by an experienced milonguero for playing a Salgán tango tanda as a young (and arrogant) tango DJ years back. I don't know what he would do to me for this but doubt that I'd get out of there alive.
Take away the dancing criterion, however, and the milonga is remarkably fun to listen to. Really. Full of little surprises and delights for the attentive listener.
Mi refugio starts as a wonderfully straightforward walker but is not meant to be. First it dips from 60 BPM to some 45 thirty second in, then again even more at the two-minute mark. When I mentioned above how the band straightened out Tierra querida when compared to Pugliese, they went the other way here. The rubatos are pronounced and sustained, albeit in service of the musical material. If I were to include this piece in a tanda, and I would happily consider it, I would place it at the end. The rhythmical structure is demanding, and makes it therefore a "special" case as opposed to, say, Hotel Victoria, which in its simplicity could be played anytime.
The eponymous Alma, corazón y vida is the last song I will cover here. Salgán recorded this vals in 1955 with Roberto Goyeneche and Ángel Díaz. Here, the band is joined by another cellist and the two cellos take turns in supplanting the singers. I find the timbre of violoncello to be naturally suited for tango and wonder why it wasn't used in the classical era, and here we have two - twice the fun!
As a vals for dancers, it's a surprise gem, despite Salgán's arrangement throwing the occasional sticks under their feet. Even when there's a bunch of syncopes in the piano line, let's say, the other instruments bridge that, and I think most dancers should be able to follow with ease. They will be rewarded with a potent melodic material and a strong kick that will keep the ronda flowing.
There are seven additional songs on the album that I won't analyze in detail. Most of them are Piazzolla covers and they are in my best estimation not intended for dancing, even though some of them might be somewhat conductive to it, e.g. Triunfal. You can stop reading now and listen to the rest of the album on Spotify (or better yet, buy yourself a copy!)
Piazzolla might be the reason we are again dancing tango today (well, not today, but a year ago and in a few months from now). He grew in the golden period and as people stopped dancing, took the tango legacy and made it his own. Thanks to him, it survived between 1960-2000 and could be revived as a dancing genre again. As a classical music composer, he should be highly regarded in the centuries to come.
He should also be forgotten by the dancing tango community - for the same reason. I suspect he was never quite at home among milongueros as even his Típica recordings are weird. Be it as it may, he parted ways with us shortly thereafter. Dancing to Piazzolla would be like courting your ex who's already given birth to two children she has with another man.
Salgán was a gifted if a bit too clever arranger and I assume that his Quinteto Real also had an important role in bridging the tango tradition to the future from the 1960 onward by playing tango to the listening audience. That said, this chapter is closed, too. I would be astounded if a Salgán revival band came to existence similar to how D'Arienzo or Di Sarli keep inspiring us.
That the band chose Piazzolla and Salgán is understandable. It's Piazzolla 100-year anniversary, and both him and Salgán are technically rewarding to musicians in ways that the simpleton D'Arienzo isn't. Which is why I suspect Mr. P won't be leaving us despite my urgent wishes.
The Quinteto did a remarkable balancing act with this album, delivering virtuoso performance worthy of Carnegie Hall while also giving us many tunes to be played in a dimly-lit dancing hall for us sweating milongueros.
Despite my disclaimers and philophizing above, I hold it in the highest regard, and thank the band for putting so my energy and work into this! The tango is indeed alive in Germany, and we shall soon return to milongas to make it a bodily experience again.