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Milonga del ángel for alto saxophone and piano

November 20, 2022: Steven Banks, Saxophonist-Composer Xak Bjerken, Piano, Principal Strings of The Met Orchestra

The tango, which originated in late nineteenth-century Buenos Aires in brothels and urban courtyards, gained ballroom status through its seductive powers, spreading to Paris and other European centers in the early twentieth century. Tangos traditionally featured not only couples dancing in tight embrace with almost violent leg motions, but also melodramatic poetry sung to the accompaniment of solo guitar; or a trio of flute, violin, and guitar (or bandoneon, a square, button-operated accordion); or larger ensembles of strings, bandoneon, and piano.

Piazzolla infused the tango with new life following the Second World War, though he was criticized by traditionalists for adding dissonance and extended rhythmic techniques. His style, called nuevo tango, bears certain similarities to bebop and bossa nova, while largely avoiding the improvisations of jazz. Piazzolla helped bring about the even more recent tango renaissance through his many performances and recordings with his own Quinteto Nuevo Tango, which frequently joined with jazz ensembles, chamber groups, and orchestras across the globe. Piazzolla’s tangos are often soulful, expressive pieces that retain a certain melancholy even in their most lively passages. Along the way, delightful little surprises occur, such as bits of counterpoint, glissandos, harmonics, hesitations, a suddenly sweet sonority, a jaunty rhythm, and bursts of improvisatory-sounding but carefully written out figuration.

Piazzolla composed a series of “angel” tangos, memorable for their melodic inspirations, in contrast to his diablo (devil) tangos, which feature brash harmonies and rhythms. One of his first “angel” works, Tango del ángel (1957) had inspired Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 play of the same title, for whose production the playwright asked Piazzolla to compose some additional pieces. One of these, Milonga del ángel, takes its name from the song form that was the prototype for the tango genre.

Piazzolla himself and countless others have arranged his tangos for various combinations. The saxophone sound in particular has a clear affinity with the reedy sound of Piazzolla’s own instrument, the bandoneon. A sweet nostalgia pervades the opening and closing sections of Milonga del angel, framing a slightly more agitated middle section.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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