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La Dessay Sings More Debussy

This article was first published at The Classical Review on April 10, 2012.

available at Amazon
Debussy, Clair de Lune (early songs), N. Dessay, P. Cassard

(released on March 13, 2012)
Virgin 750769 2 | 72'58"
This summer Claude Debussy would have turned 150 years old, on August 22 to be precise. One of the most anticipated anniversary tributes to the French composer who, in many ways, inaugurated the modern era in music, is this disc of his early songs from Natalie Dessay.

Given that the French soprano has spoken openly about her frustrations with the opera world and hinted at plans to take a sabbatical year from singing (in 2015) it may be the last we hear from her in a while.

Her focus here on mélodie is new. Although Dessay has studied and performed art songs before, this marks the first time she has recorded this repertory. She has told the French press that performing with piano alone left her feeling too exposed for comfort, but her partner in this program, compatriot-pianist Philippe Cassard, has clearly put her at ease in that regard. For coaxing her into performing this music, we should thank Cassard.

Cassard joins the persuasive company of conductor Stéphane Denève who, according to an interview Dessay gave to Le Monde a few years ago, convinced her to take on the role of Mélisande, in Debussy’s ground-breaking opera for the first time, devoting several summer weeks to teaching her the part note by note. Her performances in Pelléas have been acclaimed, and Dessay credits that experience with inspiring her to explore the composer’s songs. As she said about Pelléas: “I don’t think any other composer has written a score so sublime, each note, each second.”

Debussy was reportedly annoyed by comparisons of his music to the paintings of the Impressionists, preferring instead, if his music had to be labeled, to be grouped with the Symbolist poets he so admired. They, and others like them, are the writers Debussy turned to again and again in these songs, which set poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Théodore de Banville, Paul Bourget, and Maurice Bouchor.

This selection of early songs, most of which are not often heard, is made more alluring by the inclusion of four youthful songs that have never been recorded before. In the liner notes, alongside excellent program notes by scholar Denis Herlin, Cassard describes how he came by these four previously unknown songs. Hidden in the collection of a patron of the arts who had become Cassard’s friend, the manuscripts of L’Archet, Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau, Romance, and Les Elfes were passed to him for this recording. Required listening for the Debussy aficionado, the songs are remarkable mostly for the compositional poise of the teenage composer, in both the polished miniatures and in the epic Les Elfes (at 7’15”, the longest song on the disc.)

In his learned booklet essay, Herlin, the president of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, claims that the later success of Pelléas et Mélisande is rooted in these songs Debussy was writing in the 1880s, mostly left unpublished and still not as widely known as the mature songs. Dessay keeps her tone as clean and rarefied as possible, without crossing the line into bland colorlessness, giving jewel-like performances of all of these songs.

She achieves delectable transparency in Regret, for example, with a minimum of the scoops and inflections that sometimes mar her performances. There are examples of the sort of vocal fireworks Dessay was known for in the earlier part of her career, too, as in the antics of Pierrot in Pantomime and the airy escapades of La romance d’Ariel. With its part for harp, Flots, palmes, sables is a welcome curiosity, but it is almost impossible to hear harpist (Catherine Michel) so subtly does Debussy weave the part into the piano accompaniment.

Cassard, for his part, is a delicate, pastel presence in this most diaphanous of music but is also able to give the right air of grotesquerie when required, as in the quotation of the folk song Au clair de la lune at the start of Pierrot.

A bonus is a piano reduction version of Debussy’s La demoiselle élue, composed around the same period, which Debussy began while he was in the Eternal City as a Prix de Rome winner, conceiving it as “a short oratorio with mystic overtones and a touch of paganism.”

The work is available in a couple of good recordings, with orchestra, but this version has considerable charm, with the angelic narration of Le Jeune Chœur de Paris and a fine supporting turn by mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes.

À mon chevet: Debussy's Mélisande

Debussy, online scores

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