OPERA NEWS - Natalie Dessay: "Schubert"
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Natalie Dessay: "Schubert"

CD Button Cassard, piano. Texts, no translations. Sony Classical 19882

Recordings Schubert Cover 1017
Critics Choice Button 1015

EARLY ON HER FIRST Schubert recital disc, Natalie Dessay establishes her credentials as a lieder artist in two strong, contrasting performances. At one expressive extreme, she embodies the quiet, assured faith of the prayerful “Du bist die Ruh,” with strict command of technical means such as minutely focused, sustained pianissimos, firm breath control to span protracted lines and well-calibrated climactic crescendos. If legato predominates in that song, her “Erlkönig,” on the other hand, is a breakneck staccato pursuit—Death hunting down a child—made out of external effects such as contrasting tone colors to individualize the speakers of the frantic dialogue, varied pacing and sudden shifts in volume to keep the narrative compelling. 

Most of this program of familiar songs is situated between those extremes, with the soprano showing a similar sense of mood and dramatic impact. Dessay, in other words, is firmly committed to vocalism as theater, whether the repertoire is bel canto pyrotechnics or the more intimate arena of the art song. And, in Schubert as in Donizetti, her strength is in interpretation—expressivity, rather than classic, technical polish.

If your major criteria for Schubert performance are formal beauty and consistency, look elsewhere. There are ample candidates available on disc or among today’s singers, and it’s not always necessary to choose between dramatic insight and breath-stopping formal artistry. 

Undeniably, Dessay’s tone can be awkward, thin or belabored. An unwise choice of tempo mars her performance of “Liebesbotschaft,” from Schwanengesang. The song loses impetus because of the plodding pace, while tone seems to require prodding and pushing that interrupt the flow. Fortunately, the program as a whole is not cast in that mode of contrarian revisionism.

Dessay finds ample fodder for her volatile energies in songs where a lot is happening and changing, such as “Suleika” or “Ganymed,” and above all in “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” the spinning song based on Goethe’s Faust,a mix of conflicting moods. Some of Schubert’s rippling vocal lines, as in “Geheimes,” are less congenial, requiring consistent tone and smooth integration of arpeggios and turns. This becomes more critical in the long, three-part Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,in which the lyrical opening movement is built on such effects and the closing passagework isn’t a triumph. (The song’s solo clarinet is disturbingly strident.)

A decided asset is the dynamic pairing of the singer and the vibrant pianist, Philippe Cassard. You sense them egging each other on, not just in the aforementioned “Erlkönig” but in the gentler framework of “Im Frühling,” which proves surprisingly effective in their more robust delivery. Cassard gets his own solo turn, in Franz Liszt’s florid piano arrangement of “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” a song whose whirling lines would probably have been a good vehicle for Dessay. But the pianist’s forceful profiling of the tangled texture is keen on impetus, anything but fussy and definitely in the spirit of this entire program.  —David J. Baker

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