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Review: Natalie Dessay Brings Artistry of the Highest Order to Carnegie Hall

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, April 27, 2017

It’s Natalie Dessay’s world; you and I just live in it.

Dessay is one of the sovereign communicative artists of our era, whose every moment onstage seems fully lived and completely expressed. She wastes no time on generalities: there is no “joy in singing,” no invitation to luxuriate in “the beautiful voice.” She is there because she needs to tell you certain things, and she will not let you go until you have understood them.

Dessay’s approach is not to everyone’s taste, especially in the song-literature, where we are used to hearing lines like “Es schwindelt mir, es brennt/Mein Eingeweide” intoned evenly, as if something mildly distasteful were being alluded to and then tactfully disposed of. Dessay leaves you in no doubt at such moments: her head reels, her guts are on fire, and you find yourself pierced with pity and fear for poor Mignon, who is standing there before you. To some, this may seem like the skunk at the garden-party, or like Judy Garland’s idea of a Schubertiade; to me, it is bliss—not comforting, not always pretty, and certainly not for the faint-of-heart, but pure, immediate human communication of the highest order.

There were many empty seats at Dessay’s joint recital with pianist Philippe Cassard this past Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, and the crowd thinned even further during intermission, but those who came and stayed got a beautifully plotted program, thematically coherent across two centuries and two languages, with every note and syllable lively and true, and every character distinctly realized. There was nothing particularly startling about the repertoire, although the Pfitzner cycle and the early Debussy songs were delightful rarities, substantial and surprising in their various ways; but the breadth of expression and depth of feeling mined from a simple and rather obvious unifying concept—women in (and out of) love—was astonishing, and developed enormous power as the evening progressed.

Dessay and Cassard have worked closely together for many years, and it shows: they barely look at one another, except in moments of comedy (at which, by the way, they are both exquisite), but they seem to speak and breathe as one. As a result, Gretchen’s spinning-wheel seemed like a direct extension both of her body and of her suffering, and the Young Nun’s storm was at once part of the scenery and a profound inner state, so that her spiritual arrival at the end felt like a real event, earned at considerable cost. Dessay’s quiet singing is the stuff of legend, but Cassard’s playing at such moments is perfection itself: together, they made the final phrases of Pamina’s aria and the Arabian hostess’s gentle keening not just deeply moving, but probably unforgettable.

Philippe Cassard and Natalie Dessay in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.

The audience responded in kind, attentively and thoughtfully, and the ovations, when they came, were selective, varied, and almost as expressive as the performances that sparked them. There was almost none of the usual hootin’ and hollerin’, and, surprisingly, very little standing; what there was—and there was a lot of it—was the sound of deep spiritual and artistic satisfaction. There were four encores, and the audience would cheerfully have sat for more. They finally had to turn up the house-lights to make us leave.

 

 

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Natalie Dessay, soprano and Philippe Cassard, piano, in recital at Carnegie Hall on April 26, 2017.

MOZART “Giunse alfin il momento… Deh vieni non tardar” from Le nozze di Figaro
SCHUBERT “Geheimes,” D. 719
SCHUBERT “Die junge Nonne,” D. 828
SCHUBERT “Lied der Mignon,” D. 877, No. 4
SCHUBERT “Suleika I,” D. 720
SCHUBERT “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” D. 118
MOZART “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute
PFITZNER Alte Weisen, Op. 33
CHAUSSON “Chanson perpétuelle,” Op. 37
BIZET “Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe” from Vingt mélodies, No. 4
DEBUSSY “La Fille aux cheveux de lin” from Preludes, Book I
DEBUSSY “Ondine” from Preludes, Book II
DEBUSSY “Regret”
DEBUSSY “Coquetterie posthume”
GOUNOD “Air des Bijoux” from Faust

Encores:
DELIBES “Les filles de Cadix”
R. STRAUSS “Breit über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar,” Op. 19, No. 2
DEBUSSY “Mes longs cheveux” from Pelléas et Mélisande
DELIBES “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve” from Lakmé

 

Cover: Natalie Dessay in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman


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