Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard: "DEBUSSY: Claire de Lune"
Texts and translations. Virgin Classics 50999 730769 2
When he wrote his magisterial overview of Debussy's songs for A French Song Companion, back in 1999, pianist Graham Johnson noted that there were two Debussy songs written earlier than "Nuit d'étoiles" but that these "have disappeared." In the intervening years, the situation has turned out to be more complicated than that. Pianist Philippe Cassard, who teams up with Natalie Dessay for this recital, has come into possession of four early Debussy songs, none of them ever recorded and at least one of them previously unknown. In his note to this recording, he refers to the donor of the manuscripts only as "a patron of the arts," but in an interview with Gramophone magazine he identified her as the granddaughter of Gabriel Saint-René Taillandier, who studied organ with César Franck and was a friend of Debussy.
The songs are attractive, if not vital to our understanding of the composer. "Le Matelot qui tombe à l'eau" is something like a less-filled-out version of "Nuit d'étoiles," while "L'archet," a setting of an Oscar Wildean fairy tale, is similarly slight. (The latter may not really be a song; the booklet essay coyly states that "two sketches survive.") On the other hand, "Les Elfes" is an enormous ballad, lasting some seven minutes in this performance. The text is by Leconte de Lisle, whose poetry is familiar from Duparc's "Phidylé" and Fauré's "Nell" and "Lydia," and the piano part is another demonstration of Debussy's uncanny ability to make two hands sound like four. The fourth unknown song, a setting of Maurice Bouchor's "Non, les baisers d'amour," does not illustrate Debussy's usual gift for musical shape, but it is an attractive enough piece for a twenty-year-old talent. As it turns out, very little of the music on this generously filled disc is familiar. The popular "Nuit d'étoiles," Debussy's first published song, makes a good opener, because it is the one standard item. Some of the titles here may look familiar, but the versions performed are unusual. Dessay and Cassard have dipped into the so-called "Vasnier Songbook," a collection of unrevised songs presented by the young composer to the soprano Marie Vasnier, with whom he had an affair during the same period when Vasnier's husband was Debussy's patron.
The "Clair de lune" and "En sourdine" of this set are completely different songs from the revised versions usually sung today, with the latter a boulevardier outing plainly from the composer of the piano chestnut "Clair de lune." Madame Vasnier obviously had a freakishly high voice, so it makes sense for Dessay to sing the selections she chooses here. "Fête galante," the song with which Debussy introduced himself to live audiences, is a pastorale featuring a tune better known today from the Petite Suite for four-hand piano. "Rondel chinois" starts with several arches of wide-ranging vocalise. "Les Elfes" has some vocalise as well, along with text set so high that it might as well be vocalise for all the comprehensibility of the words. "Flots, palmes, sables" is a fetching oddity. The combination of harp and piano is a notoriously intractable one, but here the harp-based accompaniment leaves the piano to jangle along delightfully like the bells on a camel's blanket. The finale of the recital is La Damoiselle Élue, a nineteen-minute cantata from Debussy's Italian sojourn as winner of the Prix de Rome. The progression from an extensive piano solo to the introduction of a children's choir and an assisting mezzo-soprano soloist through to the delayed entrance of the star soprano ("Her voice was like the voice the stars had when they sang together" is the setup) is so charming that listeners may not notice how thin the musical materials are.
Dessay, of course, is famous for her high range. (Like Lily Pons, she even transposes one of her songs up a step.) But the high lines of "Clair de lune" expose some loose singing up top. In "Apparition," she skirts the edges of the climax and snatches at the high note. She seems much happier when she has a character to play, in "Romance d'Ariel," but on the whole she sings as if she were in someone's living room and didn't want to do anything impolite. She does find a real emotional connection and a bel canto line for "Regret." She doesn't have much competition on recordings of these songs, but in a 1995 Debussy album called Forgotten Songs, Dawn Upshaw overlaps with Dessay in some of the Vasnier pieces. Upshaw simply sings the high notes as clearly and beautifully as everything else. On the other hand, Upshaw and her pianist, James Levine, don't have much of a partnership. They give the impression of two superb musicians shaking hands in the recording studio and meeting the material for the first time, whereas Dessay has a real relationship with Cassard. He is the rare pianist, in Debussy's songs or in his piano music, who understands that Debussy wrote genuine contrapuntal lines that are not meant to be negated by washes of pedal. Ultimately this album is a success, and ultimately it's because of Cassard.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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