This looks from the outside like a budget-box compilation for the casual Piazzolla fan, but in fact it's anything but. A purchaser new to Piazzolla would get a distorted view of the musician's work from these 10 CDs. The Piazzolla fanatic, on the other hand, should snap it up, for there are some oddities scattered through a rather random selection of tracks. Random is the operative word: the titles of each of the 10 discs denote only partial or loose connections to the pieces on a given disc, and the program may shift without warning from one set of performances to another. Consider the mostly instrumental selections from the opera María de Buenos Aires on CD 4, (which is titled Balada para mi muerte, apparently just because one track has that title). The first six tracks are taken from a recording of music from the opera made by Piazzolla in Buenos Aires in 1968, leading an uncharacteristically crisp, small string ensemble augmented with flute, keyboard, and percussion. Then, for tracks 7 and 8, the scene shifts to Milan in 1975, with an unspecified ensemble closer to Piazzolla's usual large tango group and vocals by José Angel Trelles. Although these two tracks are labeled as part of the María de Buenos Aires group, they are actually independent songs, and just to make things even more confusing, one is in Spanish, the other in Italian. Nearly every disc contains this kind of grab bag, and one has to conclude that the selection criterion was simply to gather all the old Piazzolla LPs out there that could easily be licensed or snared some other way and put them together in a rough ordering. You may lurch from a small tango group to a performance by full symphony orchestra.
But there's plenty of good news. All the music features Piazzolla on his bandoneón (the acrid concertina that is at the heart of tango music), and a good deal of it is genuinely obscure. The music dates from performances as late as the mid-'80s, with symphony orchestras, but much of it comes from the late '60s and early '70s, when Piazzolla's own innate spirit of experimentation merged with that of the times and led to unusual groupings like the mostly electronic ensemble heard on tracks 5 and 6 of disc 8. There is no indication of when or where these were made; there is no booklet or any other informational listing included in the box at all. But they're extremely unusual. All the way through, Piazzolla geeks may enjoy trying to figure out what it is they are hearing. The first four tracks on disc 8, as well as a group of other recordings made in Rome in 1972, appear to come from the LP A. Piazzolla y su noneto, which is rarely heard, and a bit of digging will reveal the sources for some of the other selections about which the track listing is reticent. Sound quality varies widely, but Piazzolla himself, like Duke Ellington, was an effective bandleader who rarely committed a subpar performance to disc, and even if the really characteristic Piazzolla tango quintet sound is not so well represented here, the variety of sounds on display provides new testimony to his musical imagination. Serious collectors of Piazzolla's music, and there are a lot of them, will find that this box fills a lot of holes on their shelves.