Debussy: La damoiselle élue*; plus songs including Nuit d’étoiles, Pantomime, Clair de lune, Pierrot, Apparition, En sourdine, Romance, Les cloches, Rondel chinois, Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau, et

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: Virgin
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy
WORKS: La damoiselle élue*; plus songs including Nuit d’étoiles, Pantomime, Clair de lune, Pierrot, Apparition, En sourdine, Romance, Les cloches, Rondel chinois, Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau, et
PERFORMER: Natalie Dessay (soprano); Philippe Cassard (piano); Catherine Michel (harp); Karine Deshayes* (narrator, mezzo-soprano), Jeune choeur de Paris/Henri Chalet
CATALOGUE NO: 730 7692

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The presence on this disc of four hitherto unrecorded songs (one, indeed, unknown to Debussy scholars) will no doubt ensure sales, even if, coming from very early in the composer’s career, they don’t tell us much we don’t already know. The tiny unknown song, ‘Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau’, ends unexpectedly on dominant sevenths, but is otherwise unremarkable.

As a great admirer of Natalie Dessay’s voice and artistry, I find it deeply painful to have to say that both the programme and her singing of it leave a lot to be desired. All 18 songs here were designed for the high, agile voice of Debussy’s mistress Marie Vasnier, and really 54 minutes of fairly undiluted stratospherics are very hard on the ear, all the more so since this area does not show Dessay’s voice to best advantage – floating is fine, but once there’s any body behind the sound it’s far less appealing. It would have made a far more palatable disc to have mixed some of these early, and to some extent experimental songs, with a selection of those for lower voice of, say, the 1890s.

As for a perfomance of La damoiselle élue with piano… why? There’s no evidence that the vocal score was intended for anything but rehearsal purposes, and Debussy’s marvellously glowing, diaphanous orchestration is crucial to the piece. All I can say in favour is that Karine Deshayes’ mezzo-soprano provides welcome variety. The ‘angelic’ chorus sounds as though it was recorded in a cardboard box.

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Roger Nichols