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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Songs for his Muse
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
Cecilia Maria de Sultana (harp)
rec. 2013, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
DEUX-ELLES DXL1154 [59:47]

Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper released a successful previous collection of Debussy’s early songs on Deux-Elles way back in 2003. Here they offer more of those early songs, including several inspired by the composer’s first muse (and mistress) Marie-Blanche Vasnier, for whose singing teacher the young composer played piano. Madame Vasnier – along with the poets set here - was clearly a stimulating muse and inspired nearly thirty of his roughly ninety songs, seven of which are included on this disc. It claims the world premiere recording of ‘Séguidille’ and a number of rarities such as ‘Les papillons’, ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, and ‘Flots, palmes, sables’. If these songs could almost be by Gounod or Massenet, and the composer was to go on to a more distinctive and personal song writing style, they are still all very enjoyable on their own terms, and not just as harbingers of future mastery.

Rondel chinois (to a poem of Marius Dillard) features an opening vocalise, and there is more such wordless arioso in one or two other places in these songs. These flourishes are done with the sort of liquid tone and flowing spontaneity one suspects they imply, and which perhaps Marie was rather good at. But it is the sensitivity to text that also matters in this repertoire, and Gillian Keith is persuasive in her treatment of words, as well as in her French pronunciation, and sounds generally idiomatic in this elusive genre. La fille aux cheveux de lin is a setting of the same poem of Leconte de Lisle that inspired the much later piano prelude. The opening is another moment of vocalise, and the end requires the soprano to soar like the lark whose singing the text references. Such passages sound rather taxing as the voice comes under pressure when wide leaps are required, but they are negotiated expertly, if not always comfortably. Again in Flots, palmes, sables the composer can be merciless in his demands for soaring phrases to evoke those “waves, palms, sands”, and Keith is fearless in tackling them. This song incidentally is the only one in all Debussy that adds a harp, though its effect here seems rather modest, at least as balanced in the recording mix.

With the Ariettes oubliées to texts by Paul Verlaine the writing becomes more individual, if not yet that of the fully formed master. The vocal demands are more moderate in terms of vocal virtuosity but rather the reverse in terms of the depth of communication needed by both artists to turn these “forgotten songs” into unforgettable ones. The piano part too, never mere accompaniment even in the earlier songs, takes on a new dimension. Gillian Keith is at her most successful in this better-known group, and sings with great understanding of the mysterious world that these poems and their settings evoke. She finds a very apt vocal colour for the ‘extase langoureuse’ of Verlaine’s sensual domain, and Simon Lepper too is well attuned to the harmonic innovations that Debussy had begun to draw from Wagner.

The Canadian soprano’s voice has changed only a little since that earlier collection, despite hundreds of performances in opera house, concert halls and recital rooms. It is still a light high soprano (like Madame Vasnier’s) with an appealing basic sound that has an attractive rapid vibrato, which is now a touch more pronounced and can spread a bit under pressure. This causes momentary problems in some songs. But the greater part of this disc gives much pleasure, and the repertoire is still very rare. It at the very matches in consistent vocal quality the recital of early Debussy songs that Natalie Dessay brought out in 2012 on Virgin (and which suffers some of the same problems with the high tessitura of some items). Debussy’s anniversary year (he died in 2018) might yet bring forth a recital disc of early songs that eclipses them both, but meantime these fine singers are both well worth hearing. Deux-Elles provide very good sound and a very informative booklet note with full texts and English translations.
Roy Westbrook

Track Listing
1. Fleur des blés (André Girod)
2. Beau soir (Paul Bourget)
3. Jane (Leconte de Lisle)
4. Caprice (Théodore de Banville)
5. Rondel chinois (Marius Dillard)
6. Les papillons (Théophile Gautier)
7. Rondeau (Alfred de Musset)
8. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Leconte de Lisle)
9. Romance (Maurice Bouchor)
10. L’archet (Charles Cros)
11. Flots, palmes, sables (Armand Renaud)
12. Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau (Maurice Bouchor)
13. Les elfes (Leconte de Lisle)
14. Séguidille (Théophile Gautier)

Ariettes oubliées (Paul Verlaine):
15. C’est l’extase
16. Il pleure dans mon coeur
17. L’ombre des arbres
18. Chevaux de bois
19. Green
20. Spleen



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