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Two leading French performers – soprano Natalie Dessay and pianist Philippe Cassard – come together in vocal works from the early career of Claude Debussy, whose 150th anniversary falls in 2012. Their recital includes four unpublished songs reflecting the young composer’s love for the soprano wife of one of his patrons. In Cassard’s words, Dessay informs these works with “her charisma as an actress, her energy, her temperament and her virtuosity, with its joyous sense of fun”.
Claude Debussy, whose 150th anniversary falls in 2012, signed his scores ‘musicien français’ in the final years of his life. Two leading French musicians of today collaborate on this disc of the composer’s songs – including a number of rarities – and his cantata, La damoiselle élue, based on the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Philippe Cassard – whose impeccable Debussy credentials include performances of the composer’s complete piano works – wrote to Natalie Dessay after he had been deeply impressed by her interpretation of Mélisande, which can be seen on a Virgin Classics DVD of Pelléas et Mélisande (catalogue No 6961379). He suggested she would be perfect for a series of songs Debussy had composed around the age of 20.
As Cassard recounts: “At the time, Debussy was very much in love with Marie Vasnier, an older woman married to a man who helped Debussy at the beginning of his career. She was a light soprano and he composed some 40 songs for her, to poems by Bourget, Banville, Bouchor and Verlaine. They all reflect his feelings for Madame Vasnier.
“In 2010 I was shown a collection of Debussy manuscripts. Among them were four songs I had never heard of – and which the Debussy expert Denis Herlin confirmed were not officially documented. One of them, ‘Les Elfes’, to a poem by Leconte de Lisle, is, at 174 bars, the longest song Debussy ever wrote, and contains high vocalises, chord sequences taken from Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and melodic motifs showing the influence of Massenet and Delibes. Another, ‘Le matelot qui tombe à l'eau’, to a poem by Bouchor, is the shortest of all his songs, a dreamy little bubble of wit.”
Writing to Natalie Dessay after he had seen her Mélisande in Vienna, Cassard explained that “she would be the only person able to inhabit and embody these early Debussy songs … that her charisma as an actress, her energy, her temperament and her virtuosity, with its joyous sense of fun, would enable her to offer an interpretation that was different and really personal … something far away from a performing tradition that portrays preciosity, restrained intimacy and pseudo-Impressionism, which to me seems out of place in these works: they might be poetic, but they are also full of passion.”
Dessay had in fact sung many of Debussy’s songs in the past, and she was delighted to return to them as she and Cassard made a selection from repertoire which, as the pianist says, “shows Debussy trying out all sorts of genres, testing his ammunition and his discoveries.”
Describing the partnership with Dessay, Cassard says: “I’ve worked with many singers and this collaboration with Natalie Dessay gave me the privilege and joy of meeting an inspired, but humble artist with a perpetually questing spirit, always ready to question the text and the score. Her straightforwardness and integrity are rare in a professional world so obsessed with appearances. I am eternally grateful to her.”
Claire de lune
Romance (L'Ame évaporée)
Flots, palmes, sables
La Romance d'Ariel
Le matelot qui tombe à l'eau
La Damoiselle élue
“[In 'Les elfes'] Dessay brilliantly handles the dialogue among the song's characters and delivers some of the best vocal shading of the disc when the elf princess admits that she is, in fact, dead. It's an extremely effective performance but would have been more so five years ago, when the voice had less mileage.”
16th March 2012
“that silvery soprano voice [...] caresses these delicately perfumed offerings (some of them unpublished) with nonchalant French elegance, a winning soubrette sparkle, and loving regard for the meaning and poetry of every word.”
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