Joan Morris, mezzo-soprano; William Bolcom, piano.
Her voice nuzzles up against the notes in Cheek to Cheek like lips grazing the down on the back of a neck; she syncopates stunningly on That Mysterious Rag; and in I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise she puts optimist Lionel Tiger to shame. Joan Morris, with an aureate voice matching any serious singer’s, finds new flavors and feelings in songs many people think have been tapped dry. She’s responsible for resurrecting a dinosaur descriptive—swell—and her musical marriage with husband William Bolcom’s piano is the nicest thing to come along since Nick and Nora Charles began their banter.
BIZET: CARMEN MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 4 Conducted by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon; 3 discs; one disc)
Does the world need another recording of Carmen? Not really: there are so many versions around that if you listened to them all you would be able to sing the role yourself. But Abbado’s conducting is so rhythmically charged and melodically velvet it would be callous to cavil. Teresa Berganza sings Bizet’s hot-blooded gypsy sweetly, in the most dulcet tones this side of Barbra Streisand doing People. Berganza claims this is the correct way to sing it.
This may be true. It is not, however, the most exciting way.
The Mahler is supernal. Abbado takes Mahler’s child’s vision of heaven (generally considered Mahler’s lightest work) and gives it depth and passion. In the final movement he and mezzo Frederica von Stade lift the merely beautiful into the realm of the sublime.
BEETHOVEN: THE FIVE PIANO CONCERTOS Alexis Weissenberg, piano; conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Angel; 4 discs)
Weissenberg’s fingers force thunder from 88 keys. When it comes to the acid test—the Emperor— he uncovers hidden, lyric glories few have found before. Von Karajan’s work with the Berlin Philharmonic is peerless and daring—stretching the dynamics nearly to the breaking point. Cliffhanging conducting. The sound from Weissenberg’s piano is often enormous, always majestic. A chariot-driven performance. Lawrence O’Toole
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