Warner Classics' Star-Studded Piazzolla Tribute

Newcomers to the music of Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) will undoubtedly join the already converted in hailing the arrival of Warner's two-disc CD compilation, The Sound of Piazzolla. Filled with one fascinating performance after the other, many of which were transcribed for the particular forces at hand when they were recorded between 1996 and 2016, this set will seduce many who are not already under Piazzolla's spell.

Piazzolla's career as a composer, bandoneonist, ensemble leader, and arranger is fabled. Starting with pianist Arthur Rubinstein, one great classical musician after another urged him forward. When he finally decided to hide his tango roots and travel to Paris in 1954 to continue his classical studies with Nadia Boulanger—she who taught and influenced so many great composers from America and beyond, including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Elliot Carter, and David del Tredici—Boulanger told him to return home and continue to cultivate his authentic (tango) voice. Hence was born the nuevo tango, which revolutionized the art form.

One might ask, given Piazzolla's extensive discography with the many ensembles he founded, why bother to listen to recordings by others? Well, for one thing, Piazzolla constantly championed classical musicians, to the point of dedicating his 9+ minute Le Grand Tango to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1990. Rostropovich finally got around to recording the piece with pianist Igor Uriash in 1997. Although it was remastered specifically for this compilation, there's no getting around the fact that the recording is flawed, with too much reverberation diluting the impact of Rostropovich's not-always-perfectly-pitched playing.

But that's but one of many performances in this set. Trumpeter Alison Balsom's two tracks with Edward Gardner and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra are absolute gems, and the two arrangements for Die 12 Cellisten der Berliner Philharmoniker are equally successful.

One of the most fascinating tracks is Eduardo Hubert's transcription of Oblivion for pianists Martha Argerich and Eduardo Hubert. Those who know this music from the Yarlung recording, cellist Antonio Lysy at the Broad, will have a hard time figuring out which actually conveys Piazzolla's intent. Lysy's version is intensely lyrical and smooth, while the two pianists instead emphasize the music's tangy rhythms and sharp edges. As much as I love the beauty of Lysy's interpretation, I find Argerich and Hubert even more ear-opening and compelling.

Another of my favorites, taken from Christina Pluhar and L'Arpeggiata's album, Los pájaros perdidos, is countertenor Philippe Jaroussky's sublime rendition of the title track. Despite a microphone that overemphasizes the sharp edge of Jaroussky's voice, the singing is marvelous, and the arrangement quite touching. Jaroussky not only has a multi-octave range, but can also whip up some fire while sounding like no one else on the planet. Peter McGrath and I both used to carry this track around to shows because we love it so much. To revisit it again, this time with my reference Pass Labs XA 200.8 monoblocks and dCS Rossini/Scarlatti/Paganini stack feeding Wilson Audio Alexias, is to discover anew just how extraordinary the music-making is.

Less than two weeks ago, in San Francisco, I attended violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg's farewell concert with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. To go from their performance of Piazzolla's justly famed Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), which in their case was arranged for violin soloist and string orchestra, to the "performance" on this album—four performances, actually, since every movement is played by different forces who were recorded in different years—is tantamount to listening to the same solo piece by Bach played on a succession of harpsichord, piano, guitar, cello, and theremin.

There are some real surprises here, not the least of which is discovering pianist Daniel Barenboim teaming up with bandoneonist Rodolfo Mederos and double bassist Héctor Console for Spring, and 10 brass players, including Tine Thing Helseth, holding forth on Winter. Fascinating. If you've never heard this piece, which includes tributes to Vivaldi and the composer of a certain overplayed canon, now is the time.

Disc two carries the title, The Classical Astor Piazzolla, but the music is no more or less classical than on the first disc. Its contents, however, are all multi-movement works, including Concierto del Angel and Tango Ballet, both with violinist Gidon Kremer and Kremer Baltica. The disc concludes with seven scenes from the 16-scene tango opera, María de Buenos Aires, again with Kremer. Despite the fact that all three works were either transcribed or arranged for Kremer and his forces, the chorus for the opera, Coral Lírico Buenos Aires, is as authentic as it gets, and the excellent soloists equally idiomatic.

If you don't know Piazzolla, this set is a perfect introduction. If you do, The Sound of Piazzolla is an ideal way to reacquaint yourself with old friends in new outfits. For those who buy by star ratings, I give this one 4.5 smileys for performance, and 4 winks for sound. The 5 smiles, of course, must be reserved for Piazzolla's own performances with his ensembles.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This dialogue from my Facebook page will be of interest to Piazzolla fans and the curious alike:

Question: hey professor, what album would you recommend to start with for his music. i really like 4-5 star sound so please keep that in mind. i happen to have a delightful album by Connie Evingson called gypsy in my soul which i recommend highly as well
LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 40 mins · Edited

Connie Evingson's disc is gypsy jazz. That's a very different genre. To explore that genre, go to recordings by Stéphane Grappelli for starters.

As for Piazzolla, there are 581 listings for Piazzolla on arkivmusic.com. http://www.arkivmusic.com/.../Astor.../Composer/9444-1 I have only heard a few of them. The place to start is with this album.

I also looked up Piazzolla as a performer on Arkiv music. There are only four listings, and at least one of them is a product of benign digital trickery http://www.arkivmusic.com/.../Astor.../Performer/9444-2 Nonetheless, the Yo-Yo Ma disc gets a really great review, and should have good sound.

There are a zillion Piazzolla disc at amazon.com, and some are compilations of his own recordings. I cannot vouch for the quality of the transfers.

All these albums are available at HDTracks: http://www.hdtracks.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=Piazzolla.

pbarach's picture

Why not start with Piazzolla playing his own music? Tango Zero Hour is considered seminal. I like the Piazzolla Central Park Concert. The two recordings by Gidon Kremer are also treasurable.