Piazzolla Done Right

If there is such a thing as a soul that survives physical death, then Astor Piazzolla, Argentine composer, bandoneon (button accordion) player and single-handed inventor of the “new tango,” has got to be one happy fella. From childhood on, Piazzolla was a passionate fan of Western classical music. Indeed, it wasn’t until his early 30’s that Piazzolla decided he could invest his love of Baroque counterpoint and fugue in the melodramatic dance music of the Buenos Aires cabaret. Especially in the years leading up to his death in 1992, Piazzolla had considerable international success plying this middle ground between the folkloric and the classical, but never in his wildest dreams would he have envisioned his current posthumous fate–poster boy for classical “crossover.”

Cellist Yo Yo Ma made the biggest commercial splash (his 1997 Soul of the Tango has sold over 800,000 copies worldwide), but the Latvian violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer got there early and often with, to date, no less than five Piazzolla-inspired recordings, including the latest and most intriguing, Eight Seasons (Nonesuch). On the earlier recordings, Mr. Kremer, one of the world’s most accomplished and respected violinists, bridged the classical-new tango gap with his own Astor Quartet, which included the Norwegian bandoneonist Per Arne Glorvigen. Eight Seasons suggests that Piazzolla’s music can transcend the idiomatic altogether. Those familiar, staggered tango rhythms and impossibly romantic melodies are filtered through a compositional intelligence so keen, the work can take its rightful place in the pantheon without a bandoneonist in the house.

To drive home his point, Mr. Kremer constructs Eight Seasons as a musical thought experiment. He takes four pieces Piazzolla wrote evoking the seasons of Buenos Aires–”Verano Porteño” (“Buenos Aires Summer”), “Otono Porteño” (“Autumn”), “Invierno Porteño” (“Winter”), “Primavera Porteña” (“Spring”)–and folds them into Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons . Actually, “folds” is too mild a word. “Fuses” is more like it, considering that Mr. Kremer and his ensemble of young Baltic string players, the Kremerata Baltica, give this wildly disparate material a unifying, hard-edged, dry-toned treatment, complete with harpsichord for a Baroque effect. (Pushing this union of Baroque and Buenos Aires, Mr. Kremer even cheats a little, inserting some Vivaldian themes directly into the Piazzolla like some kind of musical gene therapy.)

So by now you’d like to know, does the album work? If the test is an exquisite 64 minutes of music, then, yes, in spades. I’m less persuaded that Eight Seasons offers lab proof of Mr. Kremer’s big-tent, one-world philosophy of concert music, or even that it shows off Piazzolla to best advantage. Mr. Kremer is passionate about Piazzolla–his public comments suggest he regards the Argentine as a more nakedly emotional musical alter ego–but the primary beneficiary of this passion is the Vivaldi war horse The Four Seasons . The piece, rhythmically wired and awash in very un-Baroque, programmatic special effects, has suffered mightily from overexposure. But in this case, the proximity of Piazzolla seems to spur Mr. Kremer and company to a slate-cleaning reading. In the section from “Summer” where Vivaldi famously conjures up a summer storm, Mr. Kremer plays with such merciless aggression, you wonder whether there’s not a knife-wielding Buenos Aires street tough hiding behind the next tree. The juxtaposition with a Baroque logician underscores Piazzolla’s relative weaknesses in the area of developing and varying musical themes. For all of his skill writing contrapuntal passages, Piazzolla’s approach to larger musical structure was casual, a shuffle of moods and melodies in keeping with tango’s nervy street roots. In the end, Mr. Kremer does Piazzolla proud, his acerbic violin a bracing substitute for the master’s riper bandoneon and an antidote to the sentimentality that dogs most gringo Piazzollaphiles.

Piazzolla Done Right