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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Year

Debussy’s Clair de Lune: Natalie Dessay and Phillipe Cassard
Virgin Classics

51O-ZNV91FL._AA160_2012 was a bumper year – a bumper-to-bumper year – for vocal recitals. Most were fashioned along 1950s lines: pick six show-stoppers and pad them out with six more you hope the average listener (whoever that is) has never heard before. By September, I was having to pay the dustmen to cart them away. Apparently, unwanted CDs are used to pave new motorways. Next time you take a drive, count the singers beneath your wheels. And bumpers.

On happier days, I was grateful to receive the complete piano music of John Cage on 18 CDs, played by Stefan Schleiermacher on MDG, followed by the complete Arnold Schoenberg piano works on just one CD. Why did no-one think of that before? The set is on a new designer label, Odradek. The pianist is Pina Napolitano: you will hear more of her.

I had more fun that was decent with Sony’s exhumations of the Glenn Gould sessions with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a record made in hell. And I was hugely beguiled by Hyperion’s 18th century Portuguese love songs. On that same label, Natalie Clein played the best Bloch Shelomo on record – yes, it was a bumper year, after all. And then along came Nicola Benedetti’s Silver Violin on Decca, an altogether original confection of movie-linked music and the ultimate antidote to formula releases.

But when all’s done and dusted and the frost is thick underfoot, one album of 2012 stood out half a mile from the pile.

Not much was heard this year from Natalie Dessay. The French soprano-actress had a run of opera cancellations and suffered the death of her manager, Herbert Breslin. In the early spring, she issued on Virgin Classics a recital of Debussy songs that I do not expect ever to hear bettered.

Everything about this album is five-star: the pianist, Philippe Cassard; the sound quality; the order of songs; and the tinted cover that takes us straight to the heart of Debussy’s world, where Ms Dessay weaves a spell of unremitting fascination. Some find Debussy intimidating and cold. In Ms Dessay’s interpretation, at once clinical and passionate, his immaculate little songs have the grip of a couturier’s window on the Champs Elysées. You are rooted to the spot.

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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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