The Strad Issue: January 2006
Musicians: Quartet San Francisco, John Santos (percussion)
Composer: Various

When it comes to tango, Quartet San Francisco has an international, prize-winning reputation to uphold. Látigo comprises a selection of the established canon (arranged largely by violinist Cohen and including a percussion cameo), with a couple of rumbas, a pinch of Bernstein and a Cohen original – of which, on this evidence, there could have been more – thrown in for good measure. The arrangements combine the democracy of the classical quartet with an unshaven virility that veers between candour and satire, but is at once stylish and inventive.

The players of Quartet San Francisco are willing to get their hands dirty, sliding, scraping and scrunching with neither embarrassment nor irritating mannerisms, but are also sensitive to the wistful nostalgia on the other side of the tango coin. The ensemble work is subtle and polished: scampering, gypsy-esque forays and metaphorical tosses of the head are given space to spit and crackle briefly, before returning to the embers; rubato is lyrical rather than mawkish; and there is an appreciation of stillness, most dramatically in Cachita and Comme il faut where bandoneón-style cluster chords are suspended in mid-air before hurtling back to earth.

The tango’s essence of constraint is occasionally diminished by a slight lack of poise, while the articulation in Armando’s Rumba is disappointingly twee, but these are isolated blots on an impressive copybook. A stirring rendition of Piazzolla’s Nuevo tango both concludes and summarises the album, displaying the melancholic charm, flashy brilliance and earthy grime that the tango genre as a whole so uncompromisingly demands.

Chris Elcombe