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Natalie Dessay: "Between Yesterday and Tomorrow"

CD Button London Studio Orchestra, Legrand. Texts. Sony Classical 88985410492

Recordings Dessay yesterday tomorrow cover 618
Critics Choice Button 1015 

NATALIE DESSAY'S classical career appeared to be headed for an untimely end, but she has reinvented herself as what we used to call a middle-of-the-road pop singer. Always a shrewd and canny performer, she has done this in a way that invites no derision and does not evoke the winces so often produced when an opera singer tries to tackle pop music.

The key figure in this transformation has been legendary French composer Michel Legrand, now eighty-six. His glory years were the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when he composed the unforgettable scores for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, The Thomas Crown Affair and Summer of ’42. He collaborated frequently with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, whose poetic, often diffuse lyrics perfectly suited his jazzy, neo-Impressionist, hyper-Romantic sensibility. Legrand and the Bergmans were close with Barbra Streisand, who often became the first and ideal interpreter of their songs. During the late ’60s, all four artists began working together to conceive an orchestral song cycle that would represent the stages of a woman’s life. Only a few songs were completed, which Streisand recorded; among them was the haunting “Can You Tell the Moment?” which wound up on her 1991 multidisc compilation, For the Record.

Decades later, Dessay began singing and recording Legrand’s songs; she also starred at the Châtelet in a stage version of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Someone had the idea that the Bergmans and Legrand could complete that long-unfinished song cycle and turn it into a vehicle for Dessay, with her new smooth croon, her near-flawless English diction and her interpretive insights. Voilà!a modern pop classic, an hour-long epic that’s gorgeous, poignant and thrilling. Between Yesterday and Tomorrow: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Woman consists of fifteen numbers—many linked by orchestral interludes—depicting a woman’s life from her last moments inside the womb to her final sigh of expiration. Instead of pretentiousness or grandiosity, it offers intimate reflections, observances, wishes, hopes and regrets, which add up to an exquisitely constructed whole. If Legrand and the Bergmans never produced any more works together—a distinct possibility, considering their ages—this would serve as a very fitting valedictory. 

Dessay is a worthy interpreter. The range of Between Yesterday and Tomorrow is well suited to her new voice, and she is able to delineate each of these songs—and each of these stages, from infancy to dotage—with the acting skills that have long marked her stage career. She is even called on at times to imitate the voice of a young child, and she does so without coyness. Legrand’s score is sweeping, reminiscent of the best of his film music, and it includes some irresistible jazz waltzes as well as low-key, conversational, closely miked passages. Amazingly, Dessay at times almost sounds like Streisand, though this is likely not by design. She doesn’t take off into full-throated belting—the one thing occasionally missing here—but that is not Dessay’s style or within her comfort zone, and it’s not expected. Nor is it needed. This disc is one of the best adult-pop recordings in years.  —Eric Myers 



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