DEBUSSY: Clair de Lune – Natalie Dessay, sop./ Philippe Cassard, p./ Karine Deshayes, mezzo-sop./ le juene chœur de paris/ Catherine Michel, harp – Virgin Classics

by | Jul 11, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

DEBUSSY: Clair de Lune – Natalie Dessay, sop./ Philippe Cassard, p./ Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano/ le juene chœur de paris/ Catherine Michel, harp – Virgin Classics 730769, 72:58 [Distr. by EMI] *****:
Natalie Dessay at 46 in the studio for a melodie recording? That in itself is news enough to warrant glue-like attention to the entire production. This woman, famous for her high notes and even more famous for her dramatic abilities on stage—she studied acting before she studied music—has given us some of the most thrilling performances on disc and in concert over the last 20 years. She’s not stopped—even now new recordings emerge with her tackling any number of disparate repertories, and she shines on a plethora of video discs as well, aside from gracing opera house after opera house for those lucky enough to be in proximity.
But chansons? You are about as likely to get struck by lightning as hear her in recital…until now that is. For Dessay did a tour of these very works in order to promote this disc. If you heard her you know who you are. The rest of us will have to live with this new recording, and a very livable experience it is.
All of Debussy’s songs are from the younger years, most from the young years, and even at age 15 he was enthralled with poetry, a passion that he was never to relinquish. It is therefore no surprise that he turned out well over 100 songs in his lifetime; what is surprising is that so few of them are actually known. Every once in a while they turn up on recitals, usually in small groups, and even on record they are few in number, though there are classics like the Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin collaboration on DGG, or the recent Sandrine Piau and Jos van Immerseel recording on Naïve. But Debussy doesn’t usually sell alone, and it takes some real artistry like that found on this recording to make for a truly memorable listening session.
There are several bonuses here as well. Four of the songs are receiving world premieres, and at least one of them was not known to exist before this recording. All are very youthful, and one of them, Les Elfes, is the longest song he ever wrote, clocking in at around seven minutes. Also gracing this issue is the oratorio La Damoiselle élue, given in an arrangement I did not know existed: for soprano, mezzo, piano, and choir. This piece, one of Debussy’s most original, was composed in 1889, not long after the songs. I should mention that one will seek in vain for any sort of “impressionism” in these songs; if anything, the spirit of Wagner seems to hover more readily, a little ways before Debussy was to make his profound impact on harmonic theory and become the foundation for a whole new school.
Dessay makes quite an impact in these works, always dramatically attuned to the texts and giving us a vibrant and colorful execution of the songs. Occasionally I detect some intonation issues, only slight, and there can be a little wobble in the voice that I have noticed coming the last several years. Ah well, it happens to the best of us, and she is still one of the premiere sopranos of the era. The voice is prominent yet not dominant, and I found a volume boost to be useful. A mandatory issue for all!
1. Nuit d’étoiles
2. Pantomime
3. Claire de lune
4. Pierrot
5. Apparition
6. En sourdine
7. Fête galante
8. Romance (L’ame évaporée)
9. Les Cloches
10. Rondel chinois
11. Flots, palmes, sables
12. La Romance d’Ariel
13. Regret
14. Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau
15. Coquetterie posthume
16. L’Archet
17. Romance
18. Les Elfes
19. La Damoiselle élue
—Steven Ritter

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