Liliana Rodriguez

Reina de la noche: Songs from Argentina & Brazil

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This "queen of the night" has nothing to do with Mozart's but is an idea -- an idea of the milonga dance -- in one of the songs included by Argentine composer Jorge Cardoso on this marvelous disc of Argentine and Brazilian music. Even those not particularly attached to this repertoire will find the voice of alto Liliana Rodriguez compelling -- it has a rich, slightly smoky, cello-like sound that accords perfectly with the late-night milieux of these song texts (given in Spanish/Portuguese, English, German, and French). Her voice has the quality Astor Piazzolla called "mud" when exhorting his players to greater efforts, and it's the quality missing in so many interpretations of Piazzolla from outside South America. What may be most interesting about this disc for those drawn by Piazzolla to South American music, however, is precisely that none of his music appears on the disc -- and no true tango pieces, either. The complex Argentine reception given Piazzolla's music has sometimes led to a false dichotomy between "popular" tangos and Piazzolla's version of the form, influenced by his study of modern European concert music. In fact, crossing the boundary (or, better, simply refusing to acknowledge it) between the popular and concert realms is characteristic of many Latin American traditions. The songs and guitar music here are not by Piazzolla and are not tangos, but they are complex, composed pieces, often with ambitious poetic texts, and firmly rooted in popular traditions. The milonga represented in several of Cardoso's pieces is a notoriously slippery concept, but it generally denotes the presence of the three-three-two rhythm appearing in numerous African-touched Latin traditions. Sample track 12, Cardoso's Milonga del agua herida (Milonga of the Wounded Water), which opens with a lengthy guitar prelude based on this rhythm and then proceeds to a vocalise section and a setting of a poem by Antonio Portanet (beginning with the wonderful line "Who am I? Skin of the mountain."), each of which places the vocal line in a different relationship to the rhythm. The other composers on the disc are known mostly to non-Latin audiences for a single thing: Ariel Ramírez for his Misa criolla and Sergio Assad for concert collaborations with his brother that have made Brazilian guitar part of the American vernacular. Their guitar compositions break up the sequence of songs and offer a welcome chance to further explore the activities of these musicians. Rhythms other than the milonga are represented; the habanera and zamba showed up in many pieces that have simply been called tangos down through the years, but each has its own flavor, and the sole Portuguese-language piece included, a samba by the single-named Brazilian vocalist Cartola, offers a nice counterpoint to the Argentine rhythms. The guitar work by Raphaëlla Smits and by Cardoso himself is superb, and beautifully recorded with a minimum of extraneous noise. It's safe to say that anyone who likes the mixture of the sophisticated and the lowdown in Piazzolla's music will find this disc fascinating, and great singing is on display for anyone to hear.