In the midst of such a boom, it's instructive to recall that Astor Piazzolla was almost unknown for decades. This neglect resulted partly from the utter impossibility of classifying his music, which was too modernistic and too close to classical music for Argentine lovers of the tango but was of little interest to the doctrinaire people who ruled concert music in the 1960s and 1970s. Even now, Piazzolla presents a richly challenging collision between different modes of music-making. His music was mostly notated in the classical manner but contained numerous influences from improvisatory traditions, and he seemed to underline its essential malleability by making multiple arrangements of popular compositions like Adiós Nonino. Nor did he and his quintets play his music exactly the same way every time.
All of which is important background information as one approaches this disc of live performances by France's Quatuor Caliente. Piazzolla's music has often been arranged for new instrumental combinations, most successfully by violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. It has never, however, been interpreted to the degree that the Quatuor Caliente does. The basic sound of the music is close to that of Piazzolla and his various quintets, featuring Guillaume Hodeau on bandoneón (the concertina-like instrument at the heart of tango music), along with violin, double bass, piano, and on some pieces a vibraphone, an instrument Piazzolla knew well and sometimes wrote for. But these players break new ground in what they do with these instruments. They vary the tempo. They have a solo player open a piece, or reduce the texture to a solo from time to time. Double bassist Nicolas Marty slaps his instrument, adding a vigorous rhythmic dimension. And all the way through there are subtler alterations to these pieces, which are mostly Piazzolla's greatest hits: Libertango, Adiós Nonino, Verano Porteño, La muerte del Angel, and others equally beloved.
If you're looking for a first Piazzolla disc, the ones featuring the composer himself on bandoneón probably make a better place to start, but confirmed Piazzolla fans should definitely check this out. The Quatuor Caliente plays with an intensity that befits the soul of the tango, and it seems to bring out a range of moods in Piazzolla's music that have been only intermittently apparent in other performances. As a live recording, Libertango is superbly executed, with an electric atmosphere and an amazing sense of actual presence in the hall (ironically enough, the IRCAM studio at the Centre Pompidou in Paris). It may be that this recording will one day be regarded as a breakthrough -- after all, it's a truism that composers don't necessarily make the best interpreters of their own music.