The most surprising aspect of this CD is that it took until now to happen. Natalie Dessay’s light, nimble soprano has always seemed a natural fit for French art song, yet she has shied away from it on disc, focusing her recorded efforts instead on aria discs and Baroque repertoire.
Enter pianist Philippe Cassard, who was so impressed by Dessay’s performance as Mélisande that he wrote to her to suggest this recital of early songs by Debussy. Delicate and dreamy heroines have long been Dessay’s forte onstage, and she conveys those qualities deftly in these lyrical miniatures too – with just a dash of gamine mischief to spice up the proceedings.
Her voice has lost a little of its lustre: her upper register sounds threadbare in spots, and there is, as always, a brittle quality to her singing which can be an acquired taste. Yet she evokes the fin-de-siècle milieu of these songs – a heady cocktail of languor and quivering passion – with impeccable style: shimmering in Nuit d’étoiles and Les cloches, trilling her way perkily through Pierrot and turning in a melancholy tour de force in the cantata La damoiselle élue, which features a ravishing cameo by mezzo Karine Deshayes.
Also included are world premiere recordings of four previously unpublished songs, including the vivid Les elfes, one of the recital’s highlights. Cassard’s playing is exquisite throughout: warm, passionate, yet silver-toned and precise, his instrumental voice lovingly entwined with Dessay’s own.
A fruitful partnership indeed: let us hope it continues beyond this album.