2021 being the hundredth anniversary of Astor Piazzolla’s birth, there’s been a wave of new albums celebrating both the iconic Argentine composer, and nuevo tango in general. Uruguayan conductor Gisele Ben-Dor has made a career out of championing South American composers, and has commissioned bandoneonist Juanjo Mosalini for new works and arrangements of Piazzolla classics. The result is a lavish, breathtaking, passionate new album, Piazzolla Cien Años, with Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, streaming at Spotify.
Their new version of the Concerto for Bandoneon (also known as Aconcagua) is a real stunner, with even greater majesty and colorful contrasts than the composer’s own recordings. Opening with bursts and bubbles from the strings, the ensemble build in a flash to an insistence that borders on anguished, in keeping with a familiar Piazzolla trope. There’s a bittersweet lull before the stabbing rhythm kicks in again: Ben-Dor teases the orchestra up, but plaintively. The crescendo with timpani, insistent piano and bursts from the string section at the coda is breathtaking.
Mosalini parses the moody chromatics of the moderato second movement judiciously, giving way to a similarly wary, stellar harp solo, the orchestra brightening this deep-sky scenario somewhat, a consistently gripping dichotomy,. The final presto movement is combustible, the flames of the strings flickering in over the relentless insistence of the rhythm section before Mosalini’s wryly reflective solo. Bellicose, rumbling suspense and the wave motion of the strings echo the rising tide of big chords on the bandoneon as it winds out.
Mosalini’s first piece here is Toma Toca, his steady, rapidfire lines awash in a vast mist that picks up with a determined bounce. The other is Cien, dedicated jointly to Piazzolla and Mosalini’s grandfather:. The latter’s Pugliese traditions come to the forefront, an often ambiguous dance amidst trickily punching syncopation and pillowy ambience in the background. Tantalizingly brief solos from violinist Kristina Nilsson, violist Anne Black and cellist Steven Laven complete this cosmopolitan tableau.
Ben-Dor’s choice to record Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires as a suite, as the composer eventually did after taking decades to complete them, pays off mightily in the context of Mosalini’s turbocharged arrangement. Ben-Dor lets the tension go to redline as Verano Porteño gets underway, setting up a poignant moment passed from Laven to Mosalini. The perils of the fall, wintry reflection and disquiet, and finally a distantly Vivaldiesque, guarded optimism appear in turn. Mosalini’s choices of turning over pivotal moments to moody cello and impassioned violin, in addition to the expected, lilting moments for solo bandoneon, add depth and textural richness.
The ensemble wind up the record with Mosalini’s new arrangement of Libertango, rising from a hushed, practically Lynchian suspense to a mutedly string-driven anthem. Other bands blast headlong through this piece, playing up the political subtext. Mosalini’s decision to leave that as a bristling undercurrent – as the composer typically would – packs a much more subtle wallop. It’s characteristic of the freshness that pervades the album, a lock for one of the best of 2021.