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CD Review: Music of Astor Piazzolla: Five for Tango

Cuarteto Latinoamericano
César Olguín, bandoneón


La Muerte del Ángel
Milonga del Ángel
Fuga 9
Five Tango Sensations


Divertimento 9
Four, for Tango

Total time: 59:10
Released in 2000
Review Date: January 2001

Label: Quindecim Recordings QP046
Available from: César Olguín

Review by Gregory A. Vozar

Fans of the music of Astor Piazzolla find it comforting that their favorite composer not only lived during this age of recorded sound but also left posterity an audible legacy of his interpretations. In the eight years since his death, Piazzolla's music has become so popular that many record shops now carry a fairly comprehensive tango nuevo catalogue, including recordings of Astor himself on bandoneon and others done under his artistic supervision. Happily also, many of the musicians with whom Piazzolla worked, including pianist Pablo Zeigler and jazz artist Gary Burton, continue to offer their perspectives on his musical ideas.

It is tempting to think that Piazzolla intended his recordings to be definitive documents of his artistic ideals, but anyone expecting one of his performances to be an ironclad reading of the score will be quite surprised. Piazzolla and his cohorts use the written music as structural support, improvising freely on its melodic and harmonic framework. His flexible, jazz-like approach to his own compositions offers an important lesson on the difference between the letter of the law and its spirit! He disdained slavish imitation and the kind of rigidity that might stifle the impromptu eloquence of his music.

The sensitivity and depth of the tango nuevo idiom attracts more and more performers to Piazzolla's music with every passing year. However, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano and bandoneonist César Olguín stand out in their ability to identify themselves with its spirit, reaching down to essentials. Their compact disc on the Quindecim label, Five for Tango, is one of the finest I have ever heard. Olguín's rendering of Piazzolla's passionately expressive musical line is a superb example of articulation and clarity, and the string quartet plays with a like-minded sensitivity and scrupulous attention to detail.

Their album opens with two excerpts from Piazzolla's series of "Ángel" pieces, La Muerte del Ángel and Milonga del Ángel, which were originally composed for bandoneon and orchestra. Maestro Olguín has here arranged them for his own bandoneon and the members of the quartet. Initially, I feared that reducing the musical forces would disturb the internal balance the composer intended for these pieces, diminishing the music in the process. However, Olguín has carefully marshaled his resources and achieved an even clearer equilibrium than would be possible with an orchestra. The opening fugue has seldom sounded as poised and energetic as it does here.

The Kronos Quartet originally commissioned the Five Tango Sensations in 1989, and this is the only work on this album originally written for bandoneon and string quartet; César Olguín has enhanced Piazzolla's rather bare string writing, very much in keeping with the composer's own improvisatory ideas and practices, allowing greater participation from each individual musician. For this reason, I believe this version is one of the finest and most exciting on record.

Divertimento #9 is thoroughly contemporary tango nuevo in its harmonies and structure. However, it contains shadowy bits of courtly dances and fleeting glimpses of waltzes reminiscent of the Classical and Romantic periods. Somehow, Olguín's reworking for string quartet sounds even more authentic than Piazzolla's own arrangement of the work for violin, piano, guitar, bandoneon and bass.

The album closes with Four, for Tango, Piazzolla's only work for "solo" string quartet and the inspiration for the title of this recording. This short piece is unusual in that there is no bandoneon part, making it unique among his chamber works. One easily becomes accustomed, even expects to hear the bandoneon in his music, yet its absence is not especially noticeable here. The texture of the music is dense, contrapuntal and rhythmically energetic. The Cuarteto Latinoamericano absolutely grasps Piazzolla's ability to enfold tension and primal emotions within a disciplined and formal scheme.

Five for Tango benefits from fine three-dimensional audio engineering as well as excellent musicianship. The engineers have perfectly balanced the warmth of wood and rosin against the cool elegance of steel reeds. The accompanying booklet contains a wealth of information in both Spanish and well-translated English and a number of handsome photographs of the artists. Of all the Piazzolla recordings I have heard, including those by the bandoneonist himself, this compact disc ought to prove a premium acquisition for anyone interested in this master's works.

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