She does not need to be praised with a qualifying remark about her gender. Quite simply, she is a brilliant guitarist.
Now she turns her magnificent skills and imagination on the tango. The album, entitled “History of the Tango,” is a cosmic convergence of the best possible variables. The tango is the centerpiece of the album. Stunning compositions from the likes of Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Gardel and more have provided a corpus of tango music that allows Berta Rojas to choose the very best, most appropriate, pieces in the genre. This is one of the hallmarks of a Berta Rojas recording; she focuses on the music and lets her own artistry enhance the music.
Her artistry is the second subject of the convergence. Her talents and skills are fueled by her own indescribable warmth and emotion. That was proven by her two previous albums which both gathered Latin Grammy nominations.
With those are the arranging brilliance of Carlos Franzetti who has taken the various pieces of tango music and has shaped them into something wonderful for the guitar and orchestra. That orchestra, the Camerata Bariloche, is a well-known Argentine orchestra who have enjoyed amazing success since their formation in 1967. Under the direction of Popi Spatocco, Camerata Bariloche, is suitably equipped for the task at hand.
It should be noted that not all of the selections are strictly tangos. Two of the pieces are milongas. The milonga is suitable for dancebut does not employ the same repetitive rhythm of the tango. There is also a sample of the vals criollo, a South American waltz, as well as a tango-flavored film piece.
It is one of those milongas that lead off the album. “Taquito Militar” (Military Heels) by Mariano Mores shows the beautiful interaction of Berta’s guitar and the Camerata Bariloche. While Berta gets highlights and solos, the guitar is treated more like a voice of the orchestra than a solo instrument. It is a lively and utterly enjoyable piece.
It opens with a solo guitar the stamp of heels before being joined by Camerata Bariloche. While the guitar is the featured instrument, the bandoneon makes a pronounced appearance. The piece is strident and penetrating. Berta’s expressive, vivace intonations stand out brightly and give wide-eyed life to the performance.
“Sur” (South) is a 1948 tango by Homero Manzi. It is piece reflective of one of the southern neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. It is more of a vocal tango with the orchestra setting a lovely backdrop for the guitar and the lovely bandoneon played by Néstor Marconi. Marconi is one of the most famous bandoneon players in the world and he lends his remarkable talents to the album.
It is a beautiful partnership of guitar and bandoneon. A vocal tango, the interaction of the two principal instruments is convivial and even touching. It is lilting and reflective and sweetly memorable.
“History of Tango” was a great work of Astor Piazzolla from 1980. It is practically a concerto in four movements with the guitar as the principal instrument and the flute often in duet. The four movements are conceptually chronological with each movement represented four of the phases of the tango’s historical epochs.
The first epoch/movement is “Bordello, 1900” and is set in the risqué atmosphere of the bordello where it was danced. It is what Piazzolla himself thought of as Old Guard tango.
The dance nature of this era is exemplified with the firm stepping in the beginning. Guitar and oboe interact effortlessly in this arrangement. The “sauciness” required is pronounced perfectly by Berta’s guitar, with oboe and orchestra.
Berta strikes smartly against the fluid oboe with the steps coming through energetically and passionately.
The second movement/epoch is “Café, 1930.” By this time, the tango was no longer danced by was considered music to be listened to, according to the liner notes. This period was the time of rapt attention to the music itself.
While it does not compel dancing, there remains the slow movement of bodies in motion in a romantic but melancholy affection. Lovers sitting and listening together is envisioned in the hearing of the music is portrayed so well in the guitar and oboe interplay. The second phase of the song rises above the melancholy into a sweeter and brighter display of what the lovers enjoy in the music together.
The third movement/epoch is “Nightclub, 1960.” It represents the “New Tango” that was universally recognized. It was Astor Piazzolla himself who had shaped and developed this new tango. This piece is truly Piazzolla with all of its quirky movements and times.
It is extraordinarily arranged by Carlos Franzetti. It is sultry and passionate and unpredictable in its shifts. Berta moves from presto to andante to adagio and back again with fluid ease. The piece in in complete counterpoint to the melancholy that came before.
Berta is phenomenal in her execution. If one were to ever need reminding of why Berta Rojas is a guitarist without peer, this track alone is sufficient to remind.
The fourth movement is “Concert d’aujourd’hui, 1980” (Modern Day Concert, 1980) and is an exposition on the future of the tango. With a glance over the shoulder to the past, Piazzolla sets his sights on what is to come and creates a map of how to get there. Piazzolla himself said that it recalls Bartok and Stravinsky.
The dissonance is delicious and the odd movement of this tango is fascinating. Berta’s guitar cuts against the orchestra precisely and, at times, almost surreally. It is Dali’s answer to Picasso.
The first of the two Carlos Gardel pieces is “El dia que me quieras” (The Day You Love Me). It was composed in 1934 as a film piece for a movie of the same name. While not strictly a tango, it contains elements easily recognizable in tango. It may be Gardel’s most famous work.
Languidly romantic, it is easily imagined as a movie soundtrack. The soft majors are warm and expressive and Berta plays above the orchestra lightly and brightly. The oboe of Andrés Spiller is full of longing and life.
“Naranjo en flor” (Orange Tree in Bloom) is by Virgilio Expósito and is a 1944 work based on a poem written by Virgilio’s brother, Homero. It is stunning in its sheer musicality.
Expósito’s craftsmanship is exact and purposeful. Berta and Camerata Bariloche are spot-on in their execution of the work. It is meditative and reflective and speaks of how love is lost. Not at all depressing but certainly heart-breaking.
“Nocturna” by Julián Plaza is the second milonga piece on the album. Again, it lends itself uniquely to the dance. It is nothing like a Chopin nocturne in any sense. It is a nightlife of festivity and fun. Berta’s vivace is equally fun and portrays energy and joy.
“Oblivion” is also by Astor Piazzolla, written in Rome in 1983 for Belocchio’s movie, Henry IV. It is probably my favorite piece on the album. Berta’s tonality and phrasing are exquisite. The orchestra is lush.
A contemplative work, it is self-examining and demanding. It is Like Nietzsche’s warning that “if you stare into the abyss, be aware that the abyss is staring back.”
“Por una cabeza” (By a Head) the second piece by Carlos Gardel was also written for the movies, specifically for the 1935 film “Tango Bar,” although it gained huge acclaim as the piece to which Al Pacino danced in “The Scent of a Woman” from 1992.
There is a delightful pairing of Berta’s and Marconi’s bandoneon. The violins add an extra dimension, creating a fourth axis for the brilliant piece.
“Palomita blanca” (White Dove) is the single example of vals criollo and was composed by Anselmo Aietain in 1929. Although called Argentina’s answer to the waltz, it is not really a dance piece but more of a song.
There is a lilt and a swing in the movement here that puts one in mind of a waltz. The bandoneon is gorgeous against the orchestra here. Berta, however, works in and around the orchestra in a partnership of delicacy.
Berta Rojas is the principal soloist but with these splendid arrangement of Franzetti’s, she is one of the voices of the orchestra. Popi Spatocco is the masterful conductor of Camerata Bariloche and coaxes the very best from them.
Berta worked closely with Franzetti in partnership to take the finest examples of tango and tango-influenced works to create a fantastic panoply of the far reaches of Argentine musical influence.
Berta has taken Piazzolla’s work of genius—The History of Tango—as the fulcrum of her album of the same name but she has gone far beyond the narrow bounds of Piazzolla’s suite. She incorporated music that was not only tango but tango-esque and even tango-ish to reveal the depths and breadth of tango’s influence.
Berta Rojas has a unique approach and passion for the music of Latin America. She infuses it with Classical and Jazz stylings and offers it to a much wider audience that ever imagined by the composers. She is not only an ambassador for Paraguayan culture, Berta Rojas is an ambassador for music.
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