Probably what’s most radically new about rap music is that it defies interpretation—artistic interpretation, that is. Mixes of a record may differ from time to time, but the vocal performance usually remains the same from version to version. In part, of course, this is a question of economics; shrewd record companies can squeeze sales out of as many as half a dozen remixes when a particular rhyme catches fire. But it is more significant that rap has done away with what has traditionally been central to the enterprise of vocal music: the art of interpretation. Every rap tune is an original by definition, even if the music underneath isn’t, and we would find it very strange if Da Brat, say, were to release a cover of Slick Rick’s “Bedtime Story,” as strange as if a jazz singer were never to perform anything but originals. This is rap’s bizarre paradox: It allows almost any musical accompaniment, yet in remaining wholly individual becomes less musical.
The point is worth making because so much of the pleasure of music derives from conversations with the past. There is nothing quite like hearing a breathtaking singer reinterpret familiar music afresh, sometimes redefining it in the process. Cecelia Bartoli and Betty Carter are singers with a brilliant ability to do just that, and each brings the force of a strong personality to new recordings of vocal music.
Mozart Portraits, recorded with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under György Fischer, is a dazzling selection of operatic arias from Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro, and the ever-popular Don Giovanni. It is also the latest step in Cecelia Bartoli’s staggeringly successful and well-planned career. Bartoli is all that one could want in an opera star—young, beautiful, highly sensitive as an interpreter, immensely gifted. She has recorded Rossini and Mozart to the exclusion of almost everything else, doubtless a calculation by her managers that she be first presented to the public in settings most flattering to her talents. As the generally disappointing liner notes to this recording point out, the original singers in Mozart’s operas were almost always Italian—as was Mozart’s renowned librettist, da Ponte—and Bartoli weaves a native’s way around the language.
Her “Temerari! Come scoglio” from Così fan tutte is resilient and powerful. Sung in the first act by Fiordiligi, the older of two sisters affianced to young officers, the song—“Reckless men! Like a rock”—declares the girls’ steadfastness and fidelity in the face of other suitors. Bartoli’s octave jumps are breathtaking; her voice soars upward like a rocket, making her denial of other men resonate with power, authority, and just the proper hint of innocence.
The naiveté soon disappears, for in the second act, one of the suitors has made a strong impression on her, and in “Ei parte. Per pietà, ben mio” (“He is going. Have pity, my love”), Fiordiligi laments her heart’s inconstancy. Bartoli invests the aria with a remarkable degree of feeling, delicately articulating the opposing passions in a young woman’s heart with dignity.
But Bartoli is a true fire-breather of a singer, and her prodigious power, as well as perhaps her temperament, are better suited to songs of scorn and defiance. Her reading of “In uomini, in soldati” (“Men and soldiers,” also from Così fan tutte but sung by the sisters’ maid, Despina), which cynically dismisses the notion that men could be anything but cads and barbarians, is marvelously acerbic. Her laugh trips lightly down descending tones of scorn, and as Bartoli reaches the aria’s ending—“Oh women, let us pay back in their own coin/the pernicious impertinent race of men”—she attains the fiery conviction that is becoming her trademark. She brings Mozart and da Ponte’s characters fully alive, breathing into them the fully realized humanity that is the benchmark of a first-rate operatic talent.
In addition to four other arias from Figaro and Giovanni, Mozart Portraits includes the cantata Davidde Penitente and closes with the Exsultate, jubilate, a motet composed for the famous castrato Rauzzini when Mozart was still 16. Bartoli surely rejoices in this performance, and the well-known “Alleluia” ending finds her exuberant and transcendent. “Tu consolare affectus, unde suspirat cor,” she sings—“You console the sorrows of the sighing heart”—and a better description of Bartoli’s lovely voice could hardly be found. It is a dazzling close to a wonderful recording.
Betty Carter works within the much more contemporary repertoire of jazz, but the material is as demanding in interpretive skill, if not more so, as the classical canon. Feed the Fire is an unusual outing for Carter, who normally prefers to work with young lions; a stint in her band is virtually as de rigueur for the young jazzer as an apprenticeship with Art Blakey once was. But this new disc, recorded live in London, finds her with a trio of superb, established players: Geri Allen on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
Carter has long been a restlessly inventive singer, but Feed the Fire is especially topsy-turvy and unpredictable. She delivers a sassy “All or Nothing at All” as a duet with Holland, whose urgent edginess from the days of his work with Circle has smoothed out just enough to be accessible—and to suit Carter, whose melodic inventiveness remains strong as ever, even though her intonation sometimes falters on this recording.
On “Sometimes I’m Happy,” Carter scrunches up both word and melody to convey the paradox of love: now content, now aching. She twists the words into new shapes, sometimes making her phrases gallop, then stretches out a note or two with marvelous feeling. She takes the wistful “Lover Man” and, over a terrific arrangement that alternates between a dirgelike march and a honky-tonk-style slow blues, fills it with a wry longing.
There are other delightful moments as well, including a spirited duet with DeJohnette, “What Is This Tune?,” in which she scats while trading bars with the ever-impressive drummer. Carter’s voice is agile and elastic, and she manages to pack even a one-syllable nonsense word with remarkable nuance of feeling. Allen, Holland, and DeJohnette are reliably terrific, and Allen’s playing throughout this date is especially satisfying. She echoes Carter’s style with nimble lines that sometimes run deftly just behind the beat, making the proceedings swing delightfully. And swing they do; like Bartoli, Betty Carter is a true diva, and Feed the Fire is a wonderful way to get acquainted with her. After hearing either recording, you’re not apt to hear the voice the same way again.