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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Chansons de Bilitis (1897-8)[8:27]
3 Mélodies de Verlaine (1891)[6:30]
Maurice RAVEL (1874-1937)
Shéhérezade (1903)[14:57]
Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanéra (1907) [2:54]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Mirages, Op 113 (1919) [12:37]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
Au pays où se fait la guerre (1869) [5:05]
Lamento (1883) [3:17]
Élégie (1874) [2:56]
Chanson triste (1868) [3:05]
Fazil SAY (b.1970)
Gezi Park 3, Ballad for mezzo-soprano and piano (2015) [9:24]
Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano)
Fazil Say (piano)
rec. Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 2017
Full texts and English translations provided
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
ERATO 9029576897 [69:20]

I overheard a snatch of this album a few weeks ago in my local (ie within 100 miles) classical cd emporium, with no inkling of voice or pianist until the friendly chap on the counter showed me the cover. It was obviously the Debussy Bilitis songs I had heard, and it got right under my skin at a stroke, a voice with a smoky, languorous fragility. This is the mezzo Marianne Crebassa then, at that point to me, at least, simply an unfamiliar performer’s name on a Warners’s release schedule.

It would be easy to play this album straight through and be distracted by an apparent uniformity of repertoire (at least up to the final work of which more anon) – I have to say this is a struggle I perpetually face with recitals of French mélodies – you can have far too much of a good thing. ‘Secrets’, believe me, is a very good thing.

That title ‘Secrets’ – as ambiguous and elusive a word as any artist can apply to anything. Crebassa offers an intriguing justification in her quasi-confessional preface to the booklet. She seems to open her soul to public scrutiny on the one hand, and yet she’s coy about these ‘secrets’ on the other. Her readings of these songs seem to allude to secrets of memory, of place, of self-knowledge, of personal flights of fantasy, seclusion, escape. The photographs of Crebassa in the booklet intrigue: perhaps they epitomise the dreamer and the professional; the extremes of her self-projection on this disc.

This self-knowledge is right at the heart of her reading of the Chansons de Bilitis; there is a confidence and openness here I have not encountered before in this somewhat repressed, symbolistic repertoire. But there is containment and self-control as well. There is a rasping, erotic charge to Crebassa’s voice - she caresses Louÿs’s syllables playfully - yet somehow retains a demure vulnerability throughout. The second song Le Chevelure sounds amazing; heady and cool all at once. Fazil Say plays the foil with an elegant, undercooked poise. This take on this cycle gives more at each listen: this is how one dares to imagine this repertoire could be sung.

The same could be said of their interpretations of Ravel’s masterly Shéhérazade. In Asie, the flights of fantasy are literal, and rather extended. This single piece represents a formidable challenge to a singer’s commitment – I have heard live readings where the singer loses interest somewhere between Persia and India. Not here. Crebassa’s voice encompasses an immense timbral compass in this one song. Say’s accompaniment is generous and alert to nuance throughout the cycle. Bernhard Krabatsch provides an alluring enchanted flute in the second number.

I think one has to keep taking breaks, preferably between each cycle or group of songs, to properly appreciate this album. Take your time. This voice, this partnership demands it. Deserves it.

More Debussy next– the three Verlaine Songs of 1891. These occupy a different realm of melancholy to the Chansons de Bilitis. But the contrasting moods simply provide more opportunities for Crebassa’s subtle versatility. The lazy summer day of the last song is gorgeously captured by the engineers, as if behind a veil of tropical haze. And then it’s Ravel’s strange Vocalise-étude, effortlessly carried along by Crebassa’s floating, smoky tones.

Fauré and Duparc occupy still different worlds. Fauré’s Mirages is late Fauré, and surely more modern, mysterious, and searching than the music that has gone before. This would imply that there are any number of valid approaches to its successful execution. Crebassa and Say combine here as if in a rarified form of vocal chamber music. Reflets dans l’eau sounds almost experimental, towards its conclusion it slows daringly almost to the point of stasis, a gentle drama that provides another highlight. But this is why I feel it’s important to hear these cycles separately – a single play through of the disc almost buries the nuances and muddles the subtleties between the different interpretive shades singer and pianist apply.

The final set of mélodies are four from Henri Duparc’s tiny output. Fragility and nobility intertwine in Crebassa’s delivery of the declamatory aspects of the first two verses of Au pays où se fait la guerre , before she truly lets rip in a wild Wagnerian flourish in the third. Lamento is later (1883), is dedicated to Fauré and almost inhabits his sound world. Again this song reaches a wistful yet ecstatic conclusion which seems made for Crebassa’s voice. Élégie and Chanson triste are equally affecting. Crebassa and Say seem a heaven-made combination for this repertoire, too.

If it was up to me the disc would end there but there is a bonus in the form of Say’s own Gezi Park 3. It’s another wordless vocalise, but the music here is very different and represents anguished political protest against (Say’s native) Turkish government ‘initiatives’ to replace one of the last green spaces in Istanbul with a reconstruction of military barracks to enclose a shopping mall. While the composer’s sincerity is not in doubt, whether Gezi Park 3 is welcome (or indeed comfortable to hear) after what’s been and gone is another matter. Was it chosen as a wordless counterweight for the earlier Ravel? While some of the gestures in the piano part recall Debussy, Gezi Park 3 is nine minutes long and to my ears feels totally out of place here. That is certainly not to say it’s a bad work, indeed I’ve heard a fair bit of Fazil Say’s orchestral music (three of his symphonies are available on Naïve), which is both colourful and compelling. But I found this piece, in this context, jarring in the extreme.

Notwithstanding that, Crebassa’s voice is one to treasure in this Mélodie repertoire – and versatile enough, I suspect, to be wonderful in almost anything. I shall be wasting no time at all in seeking out her trouser-role recital disc ‘Oh Boy!’
Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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