By John-Henry Crawford | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I have been revisiting Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango for concerts in Mexico, but I like to keep it in my back pocket as it is great for recitals. I first studied it over a decade ago and played it for my graduation recital at the Curtis Institute. I’ve always felt an affinity for Latin American music: there’s this soul and fire present that are unique, and this piece has both to the absolute maximum. Two of my brothers also lived in Argentina, for three months in one case and six years for the other, so I think that vicariously I feel some kind of connection with Argentina and Piazzolla because of them.
Player: Cellist and recording artist John-Henry Crawford has studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, Manhattan School of Music (Artist Diploma), and Juilliard School (MM). He is the 2019 winner of the International Carlos Prieto Cello Competition and was named Young Artist of the Year by the Classical Recording Foundation. His most recent recording is Corazón on Orchid Classics.
Title of Work Being Studied: Le Grand Tango
Composer: Astor Piazzolla
Date Composed: 1982
Name of edition: Bèrben, 1982. As far as I can tell, this is the original edition written for Mstislav Rostropovich.
I brought this piece back for the first time in about a decade to include on my recently released album, Corazón, with pianist Victor Santiago Asunción on Orchid Classics. It really gets me out of my shell more than just about any other. When playing an instrument, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling restricted because we are constantly focusing on the technical aspects of playing and making a good sound. This piece is so much fun that it inspires me to let loose and get into the “groove” of the tango rhythm. While the main tango motif is quite strict, there are more singing sections where one can be free with the timing, and it often sounds better when you don’t line up perfectly with the piano. So I enjoy that imperfection and liberty that comes with dancing around the beat but not landing exactly on it.
This piece is unique to me because it’s not like the typical “showpiece.” There are impressive things in it that show off the cello, but its primary goal is more to show off the tango style itself. Piazzolla had an interesting history with the tango because while he was born in Argentina, he grew up on the Lower East Side of New York from age 4–15. It was there that he discovered the bandoneón. He studied with the famous composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged him to explore his roots and write tangos, and he revolutionized the style and spearheaded the Nuevo Tango style by including instruments like saxophone and electric guitar. He was extremely influential and prolific.
What drew me most to this piece is the rhythm—it is simply infectious. In my mind, if the audience doesn’t start tapping their feet, then I haven’t played it right! There are also some coincidental connections for me with it because it was first performed in 1990 by Carlos Prieto, whose competition I was fortunate to win, and Rostropovich gave the official premiere in my home state of Louisiana in New Orleans that same year.
I am absolutely passionate about this music. For one thing, it’s a sonic representation of Argentine culture and passion. It also has everything. At close to 11 minutes long, the piece makes us dance, sing, cry, argue, and even laugh.
I think something very important with reading the score is to pay special attention to accents and note lengths. The accents really make the piece and build the structure. The famous tresillo rhythm is also ever-present in the opening of the piece, so it’s important to familiarize oneself with that rhythmic pattern and its history.
The register sometimes can be problematic: it’s written in quite a low register at times and therefore the cello can often sound buried in concerts. What I’ve found to be most helpful is to go for a dry sound with decay on each note. Thinking more vertically instead of in long lines will help bring out the cello role. When we try to fight and sustain and cut through, it can end up being a shouting match, and it’s best not to try to compete with the piano! For the pianist, using the pedal sparingly will help the metric pattern stand out, especially in the beginning, otherwise, it can sound like a mush of sound. There will be plenty of opportunities to be generous with the pedal later in the piece.
There are lots of glissandi in this piece, so it has helped me think about how to vary my glissandi in other pieces and how to make them more expressive.
I would say this is a piece worth getting to know if you love the tango and Latin American music. It has its challenges and is best executed if you have studied at least a few concerti. I wouldn’t recommend it as a technique-building piece for a young student, as it requires a decent prior geographical familiarity with the instrument, and there are some treacherous octaves for nearly the whole last page!
This edition is really the only one worth having, in my mind. I’m not aware of any others. Rostropovich made some changes to the part, which were apparently happily received by Piazzolla, but there are no major discrepancies about notes or accents. There is also a version for viola included in the edition, which is a plus for interested violists!
What John-Henry Crawford Plays
Instrument: “The cello I play belonged to my grandfather, Robert Popper. We don’t know its provenance, but he smuggled the cello and other instruments out of Austria weeks before Kristallnacht. After the Nazi takeover, he saw the writing on the wall and made the difficult but lifesaving decision to leave his home country. He bought a Nazi travel passport on the black market to be able to leave the country and took a train through Germany to Lithuania and then Latvia, where he waited for three months for a patron who could certify his immigration attempt to the United States. Finally, he found a patron and was the only passenger on a cargo ship through the Baltic Sea to Denmark, where he then took a train through France to Switzerland to recover the instruments he had smuggled out with the help of a friend traveling through the Alps on a bike.”
Bow: “My bow is a Tourte ‘L’ Ainé’ from 1790 and has an extremely buttery yet full sound.”
Strings: “In terms of strings, for pretty much my whole life I have stuck with Larsen Soloist Medium for A and D and Spirocore for my G and C. It’s a popular combination for a reason!”
Case: ”I use a Bam Supreme High-tech case, and I absolutely love the new latch design and texture.”