Labro & Takács Quartet team up for a fresh perspective on the bandoneon

May 1, 2022 at 1:51 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Takács Quartet and bandoneonist Julien Labro performed Saturday night in Cambridge for the Celebrity Series.

“True originality,” Edith Wharton once noted, “consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.”

On Saturday night, the Takács Quartet and bandoneon virtuoso Julien Labro embraced this notion with an engrossing program that celebrated fresh musical perspectives. Presented by the Celebrity Series at Cambridge’s First Church, the evening consisted of music for bandoneon with and without string quartet accompaniment.

Though usually heard in an ensemble context, the bandoneon—an accordion-like aerophone most closely associated with the Argentine tango—is a remarkably versatile solo instrument. While lacking the accordion’s variety of registrations, it still boasts a wide spectrum of sonic possibilities and, of course, can draw on extended techniques.

On Saturday, both were impressively employed in Labro’s performance of his own arrangement of Dino Saluzzi’s charming Minguito. In this adaptation, the suave, syncopated tune is treated to a series of variations vacillating from fragile to intense. Along the way, the instrument’s range of colors and textures are craftily showcased: the writing calls for drones, playfully dancing figures, and even drumming on the bandoneon’s body. Taken together, it’s a shapely, virtuosic essay that brought the night’s audience to its feet.

So did Labro’s performance of his own Astoración, a six-minute-long piece for bandoneon and pre-recorded tape. At once something of a history lesson on the instrument and an overview of its technical capabilities, the music grows from sustained, pungent chords to snapping tango rhythms and includes a soaring melodica solo. Alas, the contents of the tape, which incorporates snatches of commentary on the bandoneon’s origins by the great Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla, was largely undecipherable on Saturday.

Fittingly, there were no such issues (or doublings) in Labro’s account of Bach’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. Here, his reading managed to subtly underline the bandoneon’s German origins as well as its similarities to the organ; all the music’s contrapuntal layers spoke potently.

The rest of the night’s fare involved the Takács Quartet. The ensemble joined Labro in three pieces (including two local premieres) and had the stage to themselves for Maurice Ravel’s ravishing String Quartet in F.

For Labro’s affecting Meditation #1, the ensemble brought a mix of sweetness and soul to the music’s blend of nostalgia and sensuality. Meanwhile, both new works (which were Celebrity Series co-commissions) presented strongly contrasting musical viewpoints.

Bryce Dessner’s Circles highlighted the similarities between the bandoneon and the quartet. Beginning with alternations of energetic and static figures, much of the piece sounded like a tango trying to find its groove. Eventually, all the parts coalesce, though, thanks to the composer’s smart use of phase-like patterns, the music’s expressive tone never quite settles.

What’s more, doublings and echoes in the melodic writing consistently blur the score’s textures. At its most enticing, Circles sounds like the song of an otherworldly, ethereal voice.

Clarice Assad’s Clash, on the other hand, emphasized the differences between bandoneon and strings. This is music of opposition—both tonally and gesturally. Throughout, the five parts are seemingly independent and fragmented; moments of unity are fleeting and agitated.

As in the Dessner, there are echoes of tangos: some craggy, hocket-like figures begin to dance but, whenever they merge, quickly fall apart. Very much a product of our disconcerting present, Clash may overstate its case a bit, but this is music of real vitality and purpose.

So, after more than a century, is Ravel’s String Quartet. Saturday’s performance of this favorite was, surprisingly, somewhat hampered by the space: First Church’s wet acoustic meant that the Takács’ sound was periodically cloaked in a filmy sheen. Regardless, the group’s reading astonished for its timbral delicacy and rhythmic precision.

This was as finely colored a Ravel quartet performance as any. The first movement’s development unfolded with gossamer logic and the Tres lent’s melodic lines shaped with radiant tenderness. There was vitality, too, in the slow movement’s passionate climax as well as in the scherzo’s boisterous outer thirds and the fiery coda. The latter’s apex also boasted playing of orchestral intensity—or, in this night’s context, perhaps, bandoneon-like grandeur.

Either way, the evening, which culminated in a touching encore of the Brazilian song “Melodica sentimental,” offered much more than the usual rehashing of old favorites. At its best, it indeed fulfilled Wharton’s demand that artists nourish their work with an “accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.” True, many musicians aim for this. But, on Saturday, Labro and the Takács Quartet viscerally delivered.

The Celebrity Series presents Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason playing sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich, Frank Bridge, and Benjamin Britten, 8 p.m. May 7 at Symphony Hall.

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