Bajofondo Tango Club’s Gustavo Santaolalla did a sterling job of bringing together many of the survivors from the great tango era of the mid-20th century on a double CD and film last year, and the whole enterprise was brought to gripping and emotional life on the ensemble’s British debut as part of the Barbican's Blaze summer season.
A regular turnover of personnel is something of a given for this exercise in herding superannuated tango hepcats, and the difference between the recordings and live performance was most felt in the absence of some of the more renowned singers, most notably Virginia Luque. Uruguayan Nina Miranda did her best to fill the great lady’s shoes, attacking her half of the six vocal spots with gusto despite struggling at times to get her rasping, leathery voice above the sound of the orchestra. The frail, be-suited octogenarian singer Juan Carlos Godoy fared better, and was the warmest received performer on a night of emotional connection. The audience’s emotions were certainly pulled this way and that by the man from Buenos Aires as he inched his bent, wiry frame slowly centre stage, only to shrug off the years with a high, melancholic and still-seductive trilling vocal that pierced the air and melted the heart. What emotional damage this soft and mellifluous sound must have done at its peak!
The vocal passages were just one component of a stirring two-hours-plus set in which the “Orquestra Tipica” (base orchestra) was given full rein, discreetly directed by pianist Osvaldo Requena (more than ably replacing Carlos Garcia, who died two years ago). The string section - led with grace and style by violinist Fernando Suarez Paz - swooped and swung with dramatic eloquence. A model of the tension and release of this most theatrical of styles, they provided a sumptuous backdrop to the chattering, wheezy bandoneons in front of them.
The orchestra was flanked to one side by Requena and to the other for three delicate, stripped back numbers by guitarist Anibal Arias and the bandoneon of Miguel Angel Varvello, the latter still just about able to meet the dextrous demands and sympathetic touch required for the more intricate phrases.
But the highlights were probably two other virtuoso performances. The second part of the concert started with a one-off spot for Paris-based bandoneon player Juan José Mosalini, who added Gallic levity to the dark mood of Astor Piazzolla’s Tristeza de un Doble ‘A’. And Requena added fluid piano accompaniment to this and the other high-quality virtuosi segment by violinist Fernando Suarez Paz.
All of this and, for four of the instrumental numbers, the restrained lust and supple evocation of illicit desire of a breathless tango duo, who joined the full orchestra towards the end for a stomping run through the classic tango number La Cumparsita that drew a standing ovation as deserved as it was, admittedly, inevitable.
What a way to keep alive the tango tradition – a “Buena Vista” approach to the nostalgia-soaked genre maybe, but what’s the alternative, to let it die out completely? Santaolalla’s Bajofondo and Gotan Project put the music in a modern setting, and it has a place also in the world of ballroom and Saturday night TV dance shows. But this poignant and moving music is at its best as these Maestros serve it up – a living tradition, breathing glorious moments from the past onto a grateful public.