These two Debussy programmes offer some overlap in terms of repertoire. Donna Brown and Stéphane Lemelin on Atma offer songs of youth whilst Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard venture a similar programme but also journey much further afield in a conventionally-titled disc that actually offers no fewer than four world premiere recordings.
Dessay is very much Cassard’s equal here, given his affinity with the repertoire and her relatively unknown qualities in it. Their collection focuses, too, then on early songs. Thus it proves interesting to contrast the less heralded Donna Brown, who is in many ways a far more experienced and regarded Debussian than Dessay, and one whose performances and recordings of the composer’s music have alerted listeners as to her distinction. Lemelin proves a splendid colleague throughout. I should note here that their disc was recorded between 1999 and 2000 and has only fairly recently been re-released - the copyright date is actually 2011 - whereas the Dessay-Cassard disc was taped in November 2011.
Both sopranos offer contrasting pleasures. In Pantomime
Brown is the more conversationally and perhaps also more eager in her sense of characterisation than Dessay’s more conventionally beautiful performance. Clair de lune
sees Brown significantly slower than Dessay and very much more obviously reflective. The piano chording by Lemelin is deeper than Cassard’s, Brown’s vibrato wider and the approach bigger in every way. That said, some may reflect on the fact that the youthful Debussy is being celebrated in these discs, and that Dessay’s more superficially bland performance is actually effective in its own way. It’s an approach that resurfaces in En sourdine
where the rhythmic incisiveness generated by the faster tempo taken by Dessay offers real pleasures.
Brown sounds the more youthfully urgent in Fête galante
whilst things are more equal in La Romance d’Ariel
though here - at an identical tempo for once - it’s possibly Dessay who offers the more artful sense of light and shade. Her voice is the more flexibly deployed in a song such as this, though Brown arguably has a more instinctive sense of the music’s direction. Certainly I prefer Brown and Lemelin in Apparition.
Here Brown’s long experience in the music is evident; reservation of tone for the most apposite moment, a lighter sense of balance between voice and piano; the confident exploration of the song’s arc; all these are beautifully realized by the Brown-Lemelin team, whereas there’s something florid, even blowsy about Dessay’s vibrato - which has slowly begun to widen of late.
I’d be happy to commend the Atma recital which has been sensibly recorded and presented, though at 54 minutes it’s quite short. It reflects well on both Brown and Lemelin. The Dessay-Cassard is slightly more problematic, because it features a slightly more temperamental artist in Dessay singing unaccustomed repertoire, but it’s also the more exploratory and in many ways interesting of the discs. That’s because four unpublished songs are included; Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau, L’Archet
and Les Elfes.
Of the quartet L’Archet
is quite a sturdy setting and Les Elfes
a long one, involved and involving and expressively wrought. It is, for me, the most remarkable of this quartet of unpublished songs and Dessay sings it with great sensitivity. Her disc ends with a chamber version of La Damoiselle élue
, an eighteen-minute performance where she is partnered by mezzo Karine Deshayes and Le Jeune Choeur de Paris directed by Henri Chalet. The text is a translation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem The Blessed Damozel
and its Pre-Raphaelite kinkiness inspired some diaphanous responses from Debussy - thoroughly suggestive and very impressively brought out by these forces. This is an excellent performance and a front-runner, surely, for this rarely heard chamber version.
It ends Dessay’s recital on a gauzy high. Of the two sopranos, it’s Brown who is perhaps the more penetrating Debussy stylist but Dessay’s programme is the more exploratory, and has been very well recorded.
See also review of the Dessay recording by Simon Thompson
En Sourdine [3:20]
Clair de lune [3:15]
Romance silence innefable [2:38]
Beau soir [2:29]
Paysage sentimental [3:47]
Romance - Voici que le Printemps [2:22]
La romance d'Ariel [4:26]
Zéphyr (Triolet a Philis) [1:22]
Il dort encore (Hymnis) [2:34]
Fête galante [1:48]
Rondeau: Fait-il jamais douceur de cœur pareille [2:24]
Berceuse: Il était une fois une fée qui avait un beau sceptre [3:22]
Nuit d’etoiles [3:05]
Clair de lune [2:28]
En Sourdine [2:40]
Fête galante [1:59]
Les Cloches [1:44]
Rondel chinois [3:10]
Flots, palmes, sables [4:51]
La Romance d’Ariel [4:26]
Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau [1:16]
Coquetterie posthume [3:40]
Les Elfes [7:15]
La Damoiselle élue [18:44]