April 2000

The Unknown Piazzolla
Chesky CD 190
Released: 1999

by Paul Schumann

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]If you are like me, you know Astor Piazzolla as "that tango guy." But before you pick up this disc and grab your favorite dance partner for some chiropractically challenging moves, be forewarned -- this is not a tango album, hence the title, The Unknown Piazzolla. Instead of another collection of Piazzolla tangos, which are already well represented on disc, Chesky chose to record a group of pieces mostly from Piazzolla’s pre-tango compositional career. These compositions are neo-classical in design and are an interesting insight into the composer before he found his true muse. The most fascinating aspect that grabbed me as I listened to this CD is how this music adheres to the European sensibilities while retaining that flavor that would blossom into the new-tango movement that Piazzolla would initiate with his famous octet only a few years later.

I must profess that I have no true reference point for the performances of these compositions, since this was the first time I had heard many of them. In fact, several of these pieces were first recorded for this disc. All of the compositions on this album are for solo piano or for a string and piano duet. Ms. Franzetti, who plays the piano on every track, displays superb technique during the most technically demanding pieces. Examples include the opening track entitled "Vayamos Al Diablo" and the closing Piano Sonata No. 1. In addition, she offers an extraordinary feel for the flair that these compositions demand.

If I have to pick a favorite piece from this collection, it would be "Milonga En Re." This was written later in Piazzolla’s career, and it demonstrates a classical foundation balanced with tango flavor. It only took one listen for its haunting melody to embed itself into my subconscious. Days later the piece was coming back to me during quieter moments of the day -- as few as those were.

As can be expected from Chesky, the sound of this CD is superb. A quick glance at the back of the jewel box reveals that the recording was made using 24/96 digital. I haven’t had the chance to hear either of the digital formats yet. Based on the sound of this disc, I’m beginning to hear what all of the excitement is about. Nothing can bring out the flaws of a recording (or the equipment playing it back) better than piano or violin captured in an intimate setting. I think it has to do with the combination of sharp transients and high-frequency energy that these instruments can produce. That said, the piano here never sounds clangy and the violin never reveals that sharp, metallic edge that is so common in digital recordings.

It took quite a few listens to fully absorb the music recorded on this disc. Piazzolla’s feel for melody shines forth in these compositions, and it makes me wonder why many of these are not better known in the standard classical repertoire. I truly commend Chesky for putting out this disc. In a world where such compositions are overlooked in favor of better-known classical pieces, these performances stand out like a breath of fresh air. I know that I never would have picked up this disc out of my own volition. Now that I have been exposed to this music, my horizons have been widened.

So would I recommend this disc? It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you are interested in an introduction to Astor Piazzolla’s most popular works, then you will probably want to look elsewhere. A good place to start is the Piazzolla website at www.piazzolla.org. This site includes a nearly complete listing of Piazzolla’s recordings. Many of these listings contain music samples that you can download to get an idea of what each disc contains. However, if you enjoy small-scale, neo-romantic music played with loving conviction and recorded with state-of-the-art techniques, then I highly recommend this disc. I take my hat off to Chesky for this surprising and rewarding album.