Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Clair de Lune
Nuit d'étoiles [3:02]
Claire de lune [2:26]
En sourdine [2:38]
Fête galante [1:57]
Romance (L'ame évaporée) [1:49]
Les cloches [1:42]
Rondel chinois [3:07]
Flots, palmes, sables [4:49]
La romance d'Ariel [4:25]
Le matelot qui tombe à l'eau [1:14]
Coquetterie posthume [3:38]
Les elfes [7:14]
La damoiselle élue [18:41]
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Philippe Cassard (piano)
rec. Salle Colonne, Paris, November 2011
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7307682 [72:58]
I came to this disc with high expectations, having experienced first-hand how compelling a presence Natalie Dessay can be in the opera house. In the event, however, I found this Debussy recital rather problematic and somewhat less winning than I was hoping for. It contains a lot of songs that the young Debussy wrote for his mistress, the much older - and married - Marie-Blanche Vasnier. Hers was a high voice so the songs contain a lot of top-lying tessitura. You might think that this was right up Dessay’s street, and on the disc her voice sounds light and glimmering. However, right from the very first song she sounds pushed at the top and uncomfortably strained in some of the climaxes, a very unwelcome development for her voice. The first song should be perfect for her, the voice gleaming as brightly as the starry night she sings about, but the climax sounds uncomfortable and even a little raw. This flaw reappears consistently throughout, and I even found myself feeling nervous about the next high climax, thus ruining that sense of the allure so essential to this music. To be fair, it’s not as though this mars ever moment, but it’s consistent enough to damage my enjoyment of the disc as a whole. La Damoiselle élue is a case in point: it contains nearly 19 minutes of extremely beautiful music, offset wonderfully by the exceptionally skilful sound of La Jeune Choeur de Paris, but the climax on the word “ensemble” just misses the target. Now every time I listen to it that moment dominates my perception of the piece and gnaws away at my pleasure in the whole. The same disproportionate effect is felt elsewhere. Dessay has the vocal equipment to encompass Ariel’s fairy pyrotechnics in La Romance d’Ariel, but she lacks the sensuality in the top register to make the high coloratura truly alluring. Regret, too, a lovely song, is wrecked by an almost strident tone above the stave and she isn’t at home in the nonsense songs where the coloratura makes her voice sound brittle and vulnerable.
There are good things elsewhere, admittedly. The composer is at his best when he inhabits the world of half-light and whispered suggestion. Apparition and En sourdine are fantastically sensuous with extraordinary piano playing from Philippe Cassard, who seems almost to stroke the notes into being, caressing each phrase with longing. Romance also has a lovely sense of treading the line between restfulness and unfulfilled longing. The exoticism of the Rondel chinois is beautiful in its suggestions of the east, pointed wonderfully by the exotic yet understated colouring of the harp. Keen Debussians will be particularly interested in the juvenile songs which here receive their world premiere recordings. Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau is Debussy’s shortest song while Les elves is his longest, and the others suggest the sense of longing and suggestion that would permeate his later masterpieces. I couldn’t shake the feeling, however, that Dessay was the wrong interpreter for these. Debussy’s sound-world works through seduction, but the strain on top meant that I couldn’t relax into this set and I ended it feeling thoroughly unseduced. A partial success at best.
A partial success at best.