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CD of the Week – Debussy’s Clair de Lune

Debussy’s Clair de Lune
With Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard
Virgin Classics

There are two powerful reasons to rush out and buy this CD. One is that no soprano in two generations has sung Debussy with such idiomatic charm, unforced power and casual, off-the-shoulder elegance as the effulgent Natalie Dessay. The other is the record cover, a design that breaks all recent rules of record marketing and takes you back to the Art Nouveau world in which these songs were written. It has a certain je ne sais quoi. There may be one or two extra reasons, and I’ll get to them if time and space permit.

But first, Miss Dessay who made her name internationally as an irresistible comedienne in Italian, French and German opera. It is eight years, reportedly, since she last gave a solo recital and she has never troubled to make a solo record with piano. She describes herself as actress first, singer second – a comedienne, in the French sense of the word.

Acting a role on stage and finding the core of a song cycle are two disciplines as different as football and chess. A considerable shift of mental focus is required to switch from one to the other. Miss Dessay, here, makes it sound effortless.

The songs are from Debussy’s student years in the 1880s, four of them unpublished. Varied and, to a degree, experimental, they demand the context and interpretation that can only come from intense preparation.

What they receive here are a rare blend of thoughtfulness and impulsivity from singer and pianist alike. Philippe Cassard is never afraid to change colour in mid-phrase or drop dynamics to a searching pppp. Miss Dessay offers ceaseless challenge. There’s a harp, a mezzo in the chorus in two of the songs. Blink, and you’ll miss them, such is the private engagement of singer and pianist.

Favourites? I have a few, but the melismatic Rondel chinois in the middle of the album seems to be the pivot around which all else revolves – fantastical, wistful, desperately yearning, a composer on the threshold of a boundless imagination, two musicians who will stop at nothing.

Three More CDs

Piano Concertos: Rubinstein 4/Rachmaninov 3
Onyx

A cool pairing by young pianist Joseph Moog; both concertos are in D minor. The 1860s Rubinstein comes first and soon runs out of ideas. Skip to the Rach and you’ll find that Moog is a skippy-fingered speed merchant, perhaps a little wanting in depth.

Mozart ‘Jeunehomme’/ Schumann Piano Concerto
Onyx

A Rothschild Bank paid for this album. Soloist Sophie Pacini sounds like a good investment, showing fine aplomb in Schumann’s many crises and an apt playfulness in Mozart. Shame the bank couldn’t afford a better orchestra than Rheinland-Pfalz.

Britten: Violin Concerto and Double Concerto
Hyperion

Very young Britten in a dreary sepia cover. The concerto for violin and viola is a student retrieval, dated 1932, while the violin concerto shares a wartime origin, 1940-1, with the Sinfonia da Requiem. Anthony Marwood and Lawrence Power offer intense precision and, for me, low charisma. Hear Ida Haendel and you’ll spot the difference.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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