Tuesday’s Prom was billed as ‘a celebration of the heady, sexually charged Latin American tango’. Sadly, all sexuality had been ripped out of the art-form, as this was an evening for the Strictly Come Dancing fans, and was as far from a milonga as Blackpool is from Buenos Aires.
The programme was divided into three sections: a focus on Argentinian tango (baritone Nahuel di Pierro providing the singing), an exploration of Finnish tango, with Helena Juntunen adding her impressively agile soprano to the mix, and the left-field addition of a beyond-nuevo-tango set of fusion-jazz contemporary variants on the form from Pablo Ziegler, with a couple of pieces from Ástor Piazzolla, thrown in as separators.
The sexuality of a tango lies not only in its clingy dance form (which was demonstrated in a few numbers by a couple of slick performers who would have gained a 10 from even Craig Revel Horwood), but in the music – normally supplied by an orquesta tipica of two violins, a bass, a piano, a couple of wind instruments, and a pair of bandoneóns (Argentinian accordions). All the intricate balance and sinuous intertwining of such a small ensemble was lost in the stage-full of the singing strings of the Britten Sinfonia (under Clark Rundell) that swept away any raw emotion in the musical equivalent of a flurry of tulle. The sad vals of Stamponi’s Un momento sounded softer and more romantic with a larger group, and some of the barrio feel of Gardel’s Mano a mano and Cobián’s El motive was still there, but di Pierro’s voice is too well-trained for an idiom that really needs, for its true tragic overtones to find resonance, to be sung by a septuagenarian on 60 a day. None of this was helped by the amplification of everything, the Albert Hall’s peculiar sound system imparting to the music the quality of being relayed through a 1950s radiogram (which might, by adding a certain Victor-Sylvester nuance, have improved – or not – the authenticity of the listening experience).
For the Finnish set, the band was augmented by a large group of wind instruments, and the bandoneóns replaced by Veli Kujala and his accordions. The Finnish version of the tango is apparently different, but with the large forces, it was difficult to understand quite how. Certainly, Kujala’s bravura performance with an accordion capable of quarter tones in Mononen’s Satumaa added a thrill of off-key chaos, and Pohjola’s Imppu’s Tango displayed the influences of Finland’s other claim to contemporary musical fame – gothic metal – in the upbeat rock-guitar-and-drum riffs, complemented by Juntunen’s unusual vocal additions. Linna’s Iltarusko gave us a lovely vocalise over lush strings and accordion, but the arrangement of Bowie’s Life on Mars and the cheesy-Latin of Lindström’s Kylma rakkaus made it all a tad anodyne, with any of the unrefined emotion of a Tangomarkkinat firmly Eurovisioned out. It is also, worth mentioning the lack of translations of sung text for any of the programme. Certainly, tango songs follow a familiar pattern of tragedy and loss, but to be presented with untranslated material in both Spanish and Finnish was frustrating.
The last part of the evening – arranged works by Pablo Ziegler – was barely tango at all. The big-band sound from a large brass section was exciting, and the chaotic, percussive timbres and Planet-of-the-Apes angularity of the theme of Buenos Aires Report were bracing, (and Blues Porteño at least, was a tango), but there was an annoying predictability to the numbers, which all began with a rhythm section and a piano, seemingly just to highlight the fact that Ziegler himself was the pianist.