The seemingly indefatigable pianist Steven Blier, co-founder and artistic director of the 35-year-old New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), has exponentially increased our understanding of art song. Rather than limiting himself to European repertoire, Blier follows his joy, crossing oceans and continents to bring us the finest songs and singers from different cultures.
The latest album from NYFOS Records, Mi País, takes us to Argentina, with Blier and Buenos Aires-born bass-baritone Federico De Michelis as our guides. The occasional presence of bandoneonist Shinjoo Cho, violinist Sami Merdinian, and double bassist Pablo Lanouguere adds to the flavor of the experience. The tour, though brief, is rich in substance, its 12 songs beginning with Mariano Mores and Enrique Santos Discépolo’s 1948 tango “Cafétin de Buenos Aires.” De Michelis’s voice confronts us with its mixture of archetypical machismo, seduction, and love-worn passion.
It’s a unique voice, one that seems as much at home in The New Song Project that De Michelis founded as on the operatic stage. Higher in the range, his instrument can turn a bit white, as though stretched, but then it confounds expectations by reaching even higher with ease. With meaning as important as melody, clear elocution is never sacrificed for tonal production.
The riches of the music seduce us as much as De Michelis’s voice. We begin in an old Buenos Aires cafe, one that provided solace and adventure to the singer in his youth. Lamenting the days of old, the singer confides, in a voice mixed with nostalgia and pain: “One evening, I mourned my first broken heart / there on your tables that ask no questions. / I was born for sorrow, / I drank away my years, / and I gave in without a fight” (translation by D.P. Snyder).
You would be hard-pressed to find another classically trained singer today whose flawless legato, breath control, and soul are so perfectly suited to this repertoire.
Next on the album is one of Blier’s most beloved Argentinian composers, Carlos Guastavino. In his 1964 “Noches de Santa Fe, canción del litoral” (Santa Fe nights, a song of the coast), De Michelis’s voice becomes warmer. Filled with sincerity, sensitivity, and grace, he sings poet Guiche Aizenberg’s paean to the sounds and scents of Santa Fe.
There are three other songs by Guastavino, “Siempre se Vuelve a Buenos Aires” (You always come back to Buenos Aires) by Astor Piazzolla, and more by 20th-century Argentinian composers who may be new to you. One highlight is De Michelis’s enchanting duet with tenor César Andrés Parreño on Carlos López Buchardo and Gustavo Caraballo’s seductively sentimental lament “Vidala,” composed in 1924. The final song, Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera’s “El día que me quieras” (If ever you should love me), arranged by Blier, is a beautiful, sensual lovefest. But it’s not more description that you need, not when so many mysteries embodied in this wonderfully seductive music await.