An album of tangos is an unusual choice for a rising soprano. And, once the choice has been made, you might expect music by Astor Piazzolla, whose popularity rolls along unabated. Piazzolla does come on stage at the end here, but most of the program is given over to earlier music that's all but unknown to modern audiences. It's quite a set of challenges taken on by Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and her pianist and husband, Serouj Kradijian, and they exceed expectations. The repertoire is attractive in itself, for Bayrakdarian draws on the tango's often-overlooked international legacy. In addition to Spanish, she sings in Armenian, Arabic (sample track 2, an amazing Arab-tango fusion by Egyptian composer Fareed El-Atrache -- who knew?), Finnish, French, German, and Italian; there is also a Danish instrumental tango, Jacob Gade's Jalousie. Speakers of some of those languages will have to evaluate Bayrakdarian's diction for themselves, but in the more common ones her accent is never anything less than attractively exotic. The interpretation of many classic South American tangos by a woman is exotic as well, and it would be interesting to learn how Argentines will receive Bayrakdarian's embodiment of Homero Manzi's words (in Anibal Troilo's Che Bandoneón, track 8) such as "tango after tango," wrapped up in the madness of alcohol and bitterness, as well as the explicitly male personae of songs like Carlos Gardel's Por una cabeza. Bayrakdarian really shines here: her emotional range, running from weeping to a snarl, puts the gender question neatly aside, and she seems to have intentionally avoided Piazzolla's leading female figure, María from the tango-operita María de Buenos Aires. The program forms a loosely chronological structure, beginning with classic tangos and moving forward to Piazzolla at the end. If there's a single complaint here it's that the five Piazzolla works -- three instrumental, one translated into French, and one translated into Italian -- end the program on an odd note, even though they're interspersed with other pieces. The work that comes as the centerpiece of the program is Kurt Weill's massive tango-habanera, Youkali. On the whole, though, this is a virtuoso performance, and a daring release that confirms the buzz surrounding a charismatic young singer. Texts appear in their original languages and in English and French.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim