An Inspiring Barbican Recital from Natalie Dessay

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Mendelssohn, Duparc, Fauré, Liszt, Bizet: Natalie Dessay (soprano), Phillipe Cassard (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 2.10.2015 (GD)

Schubert, Eight Lieder
Mendelssohn, Four Lieder
Duparc,  Four mélodies on poems by Victor Hugo
Liszt, Sonnet 104 de Pétrarque
Five Songs on poems by Victor Hugo
‘Oh! quand je dors’ &  ‘Comment, disaient-ils’
‘Dans les ruines d’une abbaye’ & L’Absent’ 
‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’

Natalie Dessay has not visited England that frequently. It is true she did score a hit in the Covent Garden production of La fille du régiment as the comedic Marie but has not appeared there since. She gave one Wigmore Hall recital of mostly French song, but was not asked back. In an interview she explained that she was critical of the lighting set up, but it is difficult to believe that this was the reason? Overlaying all this there has been a tendency in the British (mostly the London press) if not exactly to directly criticise her art, her vocal style, but to deploy a kind of continual rhetoric of ad hominem, occasionally bitchy inferences. This is a very English thing; not exactly overt critique or put down, but an implied covert or mild critique, critque légère. And this is often dressed up in comic garb. So her onstage gestures or attire are seen as over the top, exaggerated. But this extends to wider cultural/musical artistic issues. For a long time French orchestras were denounced by British critics, although such denunciations were rarely based on any kind of critical, comparative evidence. In one recent review of a Dessay recital the eminent critic stated that France has not produced many fine sopranos! Are not Régine Crespin, Janine Micheau, Germaine Lubin, and in our own time Sandrine Piau, Véronique Gens, Mireille Denusch, and of course Natalie Dessay, among many others – are all these not superb French sopranos? But really this whole debate is part of a wider debate around the historic relationship between France and England and its discontents.

Dessay came on stage and immediately launched into Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’, with its dramatic C minor piano tremolandos. Phillipe Cassard throughout was an excellent accompanist; they have obviously worked together on numerous occasions and demonstrate a real rapport. Dessay has only recently ventured into German lieder and her German pronunciation was very clear. She emphasised the contrast between the boy’s pleas regarding the horror of the ‘Erlkönig’ and the father’s initial attempts to comfort his son. Dessay’s arm and hand gestures were not over-done, her arms as a cradle commensurate with the last bleak lines of the poem telling of the dead child in its father’s arms. Dessay demonstrated a wider vocal range than I remember, with no sense of strain in the high A’s and C’s. She effected a wonderful contrast from the Sturm und Drang drama of the ‘Erlkönig’, to the nocturnal calm and lyricism of ‘Nacht und Träume’ set to the poem by Schubert’s friend Matthaus Kasimir von Collin where her velvet tones meshed evocatively with the songs rich harmonies and glowing night intimacies; similarly with ‘Night violets’ (‘Nachtviolen’) to words by Johan Mayrhofer, the Romantic allegory of night which provided just the right atmosphere for Dessay’s natural lyricism. ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) a kind of footnote to Goethe’s great Faustian epic, was pleasingly flowing and lyrical, Dessay punctuating the delightful shock of the mysterious stranger’s kiss with a well-timed pause.

Although not performed as much as they used to be, Mendelssohn’s songs are well worth listening to. He composed songs throughout his relatively short career. In contrast to Schubert’s continual experimentation his songs are mostly more lyrical, sustained with rich harmonies and beautiful melodies like ‘Nachtgesang’ (Night Song) with words by Adolf Wendler. It is a kind of dialectic of night, nature and daylight interfusing with the poet’s imagination. I had not heard this song before, but was taken aback with its sublime melodies which Dessay sang with a glowing lyricism, where they seemed to be suspended in time and space.

Hexenlied (Witch Song) from a poem by Ludwig Heinrich Holly, was given a virtuoso rendition. Cassard’s incredibly nimble and varied finger work reminding me that this was from a composer who composed those unique scherzos (the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance). The words and content are not much here, just a lot of silly tosh about witches, broomsticks, ghosts and dragons, but it was the way in which Dessay punctuated phrases, in coloratura fashion, her highest registers like a vocal laser beam which impressed. In this mode Dessay is second to none past and present.

Many of Henri Duparc’s songs are adapted from poems which deal with death, ecstasy, desire, sleep (‘a death perfumed by the breath of the beloved). Death was also a strong feature in German lied, but with Duparc, and especially the Baudelaire settings death is also linked to desire, narcotics and sex. I don’t think I have ever heard a voice that can so delicately ascend, and then descend into such a numinous aura. Dessay vocally caressed each phrase in the song ‘Extase’, from a poem by Henri Cazalis. Similarly ‘Elégie’, to words by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, is full of longing, desire, and unrequited love. Again Dessay’s lyrical sotto voce tones seemed totally idiomatic.  Duparc’s Baudelaire song ‘L’invitation au voyage’ from his great collection ‘Les fleurs du mal’ is full of allusions to the darker aspect of love – evil masked as love and innocence (‘treacherous eyes shining through their tears’) – and is one of the masterpieces of French mélodie. Here Dessay’s rendition, subtle and idiomatic as it was, did not quite erase memories of the great Charles Panzera. But comparisons here really are ‘odious’: Dessay comes from a totally different singing background, but, more importantly, it came from a female voice, always adding another dimension to mostly a male dominated field.

Of the Victor Hugo songs Fauré’s ‘L’absent’ was of particular interest dealing again with silence, longing, mourning and death. This was nearing the end of the recital and on several occasions Dessay had a coughing bout, but she managed the song with no signs of vocal problems. Here I particularly liked the way she sang and inflected ‘Où donc est-il allé? – Dans l’ombre’ (‘Where has he gone? – Into the shadow’).

Cassard gave a virtuoso rendition of Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No.104, with Dessay walking on stage at the end of the piano solo to go directly into the same composer’s ‘Oh! quand je dors’. This and the final official song, Liszt’s ‘Comment, disaient-ils’ were delightful, Dessay’s vocal French having a predictable clarity, which never compromised the musical narrative line of the song.

For me one of the real gems was the Bizet song ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’ again to words by Victor Hugo, from his Op.20 Mélodies, No.4. The song is superbly composed, with an almost operatic vocal line, and unforgettable melodies, all things which Dessay comes to naturally; there are even some subtle coloratura passages added more theatrical flavour. The song deals with a familiar French (colonialist) theme of the mythical ‘east’, especially the Arabian east. The white French poet cannot forget his Arabian hostess and her farewell. She of course is nameless, only existing in his exotic imagination. Perhaps the erotic tones invoked in a colonialist context don’t quite correspond to today’s political correctness and may be one of the reasons it and the whole collection – which similarly focus on a mythical (Edward Said’s ‘Orientalist’) Arabian East – are now not much performed. But Dessay had no such reservations, singing it in a way in which the sultry scene, erotic connotations and exotic dance inflections, came completely to life.

By way of two encores we were treated some more delicate exotica from Delibes, and a lugubrious miniature from Rachmaninov.

This was an inspiring and hugely enjoyable recital with some superb music making and singing. This is what the uniqueness of live performance is all about. I look forward to more from Natalie Dessay.

Geoff Diggines


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