Carlos Gardel is the undisputed king of Argentine tango; he is largely credited with moving the tango out of the lowly barrios of Buenos Aires and into the homes of respectable citizens through his moving singing voice and irreproachable classiness of personal style. As a composer, Gardel fits the mold of popular songwriter a bit more comfortably than the advanced instrumental milieu associated with Astor Piazolla -- all of his original tangos have lyrics and were designed to be sung by him on records, in films, or in personal appearances. Gardel's best-known tangos date to the last five years of his life, and many were introduced in low-budget talking pictures in which he starred. Gardel made an enormous amount of recordings -- at least a 1,000 titles -- and yet his melodies are so strong and expressive that it would suggest a life of their own beyond the context of his voice might be at least possible. Michel Plasson, music director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, was inspired to try during a 1990 trip to Argentina while observances of the centenary of Gardel's birth were in progress. Plasson was also motivated by the fact that, despite being an Argentine idol of the highest echelon, Gardel was born in Toulouse and is one of the city's most famous native musicians, though his fame came elsewhere. To honor Gardel in the orchestral garb that Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse would need to realize his music, Plasson has employed composer and arranger Raúl Garello of the Buenos Aires Tango Orchestra to create the 14 orchestrations on EMI Classics' Gardel: Tangos.
Garello, who is also represented by his own original piece Toulouse-Buenos Aires, is certainly familiar with the traditional orchestral scoring of tango utilizing a string group and bandoneon soloist, and generally does not stray far from the traditional model. When he does, it is to incorporate a wider palette of the orchestra's resources into this essentially simple, melodic music -- to Americans, Garello's work will be reminiscent of both Hollywood scoring and the approach of Jackie Gleason and Nelson Riddle. It is all very tastefully done -- some might argue that Garello's approach to the familiar Por una cabeza is a little too interventionist, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
EMI Classics' Gardel: Tangos puts a concert hall spin on music that is, by its very nature, popular. It may not be the last word on Gardel, especially with those devoted to his original recordings, which continue to set the standard for everything he did. But it is a highly listenable album -- the bandoneon playing is excellent, Plasson and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse are crisp and respectful to the material, and this effort does transmit something of Carlos Gardel's class and style, if not the content or context of his original compositions.