Pictures of America
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Paris Mozart Orchestra/Claire Gibault
rec. Studio Ferber & Salle Colonne, Paris, France 2015/2016
SONY 88985342842 [49:50 + 42:58]
This is Natalie Dessay’s first “concept album”, but I fear it is not a success. She has given up opera but, as Dean Acheson said of Britain after losing the Empire, has not yet found a role. She has turned to this very strange hotch-potch, but the results are decidedly mixed
The first problem is the content. From the title, I'd expected this to be a collection of songs by great American composers and - rather dishonestly, I feel - you will find nothing on either the front or back of the CD to dissuade you from this conclusion.
However, it is not. Disc one is a collection of songs, all of which (I assume) are American, but which exist in rather sickly and often rather odd arrangements. The names of the composers and arrangers are buried deep within the booklet in tandem with a series of Edward Hopper paintings with which they are linked. Search me if you get the connection, though. Look hard enough and you can concoct a link between each song and each picture, of course, and in some cases it's painfully unsubtle: Send in the Clowns is paired with Soir Bleu which contains - you guessed it - a clown! To me this felt artificial and, to be blunt, unnecessarily tacked on. Why, after all, need it be Edward Hopper?
Well, the reason is the second disc, which is a performance of Graciane Finzi's Scénographies d'Edward Hopper, a setting of a sequence of French texts by Claude Esteban inspired by eight Hopper paintings. I didn’t much care for this, because the music consists of meandering string lines which, to my ears, do little and go nowhere. Worse, Dessay doesn’t even sing on this disc: instead she reads the prose, in French, over the unfolding music, which brings us to the next problem – the lack of sung texts or translations. Instead the booklet gives you (admittedly very handsome) reproductions of the Edward Hopper paintings I mentioned above. My GCSE Level French suggests that the text of the Scénographies consists of quasi-poetic descriptions of the pictures, but I will never know, as the booklet left me clueless. It's a sign of the vaingloriousness of the whole project that the paintings are given coverage at the expense of the words
Some of the arrangements on the first disc are OK. I'm a fool to want you is pleasingly sultry, as, I suppose, is Send in the Clowns. Something's Coming moves along with jazzy restlessness, and I quite enjoyed the slow jazz lines of songs like I keep going back to Joe's. I Feel Pretty in quintuple time sounds very odd, though, and There’s no business like show business is drained of its energy.
Dessay herself actually sings pretty well. Her English diction on Disc One is admirably clear, so comprehensibility is never an issue. The voice, never particularly large, feels lower and rather boxy. She says herself in the booklet notes that she worked to "develop a new voice - a deeper and more intimate sound that would whisper into the listener's ear. It was a voice I had to learn to control, like a small, secretive wild animal." Whisper in the ear it does, but that's mostly because of the artificially close recording, which owes more to the productions of the pop world. Dessay seems to be attempting to take on the persona of a cabaret singer in a sultry, smoke-filled night club, which is fine and actually suits her rather well.
So my beef with this pair of discs isn’t actually with the artists: it’s with the marketing people at Sony who put this set together. The lack of clear information about the disc’s content is both totally avoidable and unforgiveable. Unless you had highly specialised knowledge, then looking at the CD cover in a shop would leave you utterly baffled as to its content and, as I hinted before, I feel a bit cheated by having thought that I was getting something I wasn’t. It's a perfectly valid aspiration to record and present Finzi's Scénographies d'Edward Hopper, but why on earth isn't the disc clearly marketed as such, rather than hiding the title of the work away in small print?
For reasons which remain mysterious, the second disc finished with Barber's Adagio, which is here given a performance that is decidedly Allegretto. Surely this wasn’t just included to justify the cost of spreading the set over two discs?...
No: this set left me feeling baffled and actually slightly duped. Sony needs to up its game, and Dessay should insist on finer collaborators if she is tempted into such a project in the future.
Disc 1 [49:50]
On a Clear Day (From “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”) [5:13]
I Feel Pretty (From "West Side Story") [3:28]
I'm a Fool to Want You [4:46]
Send in the Clowns (From "A Little Night Music") [4:32]
Detour Ahead [5:42]
Something's Coming (From "West Side Story") [2:44]
Autour de minuit [5:54]
I Keep Going Back to Joe's & My Solitude [4:57]
A Place That You Want to Call Home [5:05]
Two Lonely People [3:37]
There's No Business Like Show Business (From “Annie Get Your Gun”) [3:46]
Disc 2 [42:58]
Ground Swell [4:04]
Girl at Sewing Machine [2:20]
Compartment C, Car 293 [1:34]
South Carolina Morning [1:30]
House by the Railroad [8:52]
People in the Sun [4:28]
Roofs of Washington Square [6:20]
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 [6:21]