Strictly speaking, this latest recital disc from Canadian-Armenian-American soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian should be subtitled “Through Representations of Romany Songland” since it gathers music by composers who did not have, as far as I can determine, any close Romany family ties. It’s an appealing and eclectic, multi-lingual mix that embraces more formally wrought art songs with lighter, often dance-related fare, including: eight of the Ziegeunerlieder by Johannes Brahms; Antonín Dvořák’s seven Cigánské Melodie; selections from operettas by Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán, Victor Herbert and Maurice Yvain (the CD gets its main title from a number in his 1947 operetta, Chanson Gitane); and other thematically related works by Franz Liszt, Sebastián Iradier, George Bizet, Joaquín Valverde and Henry F.B. Gilbert. The way traditional “gypsy” musical tropes and narratives have been appropriated into other musical genres is tellingly illustrated here in the side-by-side inclusion of Iradier’s “El arreglito (Canción habanera)” and the “Habenera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Bizet based his iconic operatic piece on the melodic line of the former, initially thinking he was adapting folk music and only later discovering that the Spanish Basque Iradier had composed it.
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Bayrakdarian handles the 27 numbers with great aplomb. Her musicality shines through all the material, and her voice has retained the silvery tone and flexibility that were hallmarks at the outset of her career almost three decades ago. There’s a steelier quality to her sound these days, but it’s finely tempered and not marred by any hard edge. She’s experienced enough to bring a wide colour palette to such diverse material—light and lively in flirtatious pieces like Valverde’s “Clavilitos (Zambra gitana),” for example, but more grandly theatrical in the yearning for homeland in “Hör’ ich Cymbalklänge” from Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe.
Besides her musical projects and performances, Bayrakdarian is now Professor, Director of Opera Theatre, and Head of the Voice Area in the Music Department at University of California Santa Barbara. UCSB gets credit for partially funding this recording project, but it’s a Made-in-Canada affair, recorded in August 2021 in the somewhat airy acoustic of the sanctuary of Toronto’s Humbercrest United Church. More importantly, Bayrakdarian is working here with some eminent Canadian instrumental musicians, including violinist Mark Fewer, violist Juan-Miguel Fernandez, and the Gryphon Trio (Jamie Parker (piano), Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin) and Roman Borys (cello)). The issue also features world premiere arrangements of the Dvořák Melodie by John Greer and of almost all the other numbers by the seemingly indefatigable Peter Tiefenbach, who also gets credit as co-producer with Bayrakdarian. Kudos to Greer and Tiefenbach for achieving such a wide variety of textures with relatively limited resources. Recording engineer Pouya Hamidi maintains a good balance between all the musical forces on hand, so there is a great deal to enjoy in this celebration of gypsy-inflected music in both Bayrakdarian’s singing and its instrumental setting.