French coloratura Natalie Dessay made her Boston début Saturday night in Jordan Hall, in a Celebrity Series recital of German and French songs. With the sensitive collaboration of pianist Philippe Cassard, Dessay delivered a delightful evening of music to a full Jordan Hall.
The program presented a carefully arranged selection of German and French songs in sets by composer. Across the sets were continuities of theme or musical idea. The concert opened with lieder by Clara Schumann: “Liebst du um Schönheit,” op. 12 no. 4; “Geheimes Flüstern,” op. 23 no. 3; “Sie liebten sich beide,” op. 13 no. 2; and “Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen,” op. 12 no. 2. While all dealt with love, the first and last (texts by Friedrich Rückert) offered a happier portrait of the experience, with the middle ones more introspective (“Geheimes Flüstern,” text by Hermann Rollett) and wistful (“Sie liebten sich beide,” text by Heinrich Heine). The second set featured songs by Brahms: “Lerchengesang,” op. 70 no. 2 (text by Karl August Candidus); “Meine Lieder,” op. 106 no. 4 (text by Adolf Frey); and “Geheimnis,” op. 71 no. 3 (text Candidus). The first continued the word-painting of the natural world heard in the last song of the Schumann set while dwelling on music explicitly; the second thematized the power and pleasure of song; and the last picked up the introspection informing the first set. Musically these songs share an idiom, hardly surprising given the personal connections between the two composers.
Following upon these sets came two mélodies from Henri Duparc: “L’invitation au voyage” (1870; text by Charles Baudelaire) and “Extase/Nocturne” (1884; text by Henri Cazalis). The text of the first could almost be a comment upon the Schumann-Brahms relationship, while both explore the depths of love—now in a French idiom. The first half concluded with a complementary set of lieder by Richard Strauss (I must admit to not understanding “Wasserrose,” op. 22 no. 4—beautiful music to an odd text by Felix Ludwig Julius Dahn.)
Following intermission, the concert focused on French songs: Gabriel Fauré’s settings of Bussine (“Après un rêve”) and Verlaine; Francis Poulenc’s cycle Fiançailles pour rire (texts by Louise de Vilmorin); and two final songs by Claude Debussy. Presenting works by chronologically overlapping composers gave a chance to hear interactions between them and changes in the genre. This sort of thoughtful interconnection between songs and sets continued through the entire program.
The recital was a study in consummate musical artistry. The nuanced collaboration between Dessay and Cassard, a model of engaged interaction, produced a richly moving performance. Dessay brought transparency of meaning to each song, communicating that meaning by gesture, phrase, and delivery. Throughout the evening her singing showed crispness, power, and projection: she can fill the Metropolitan Opera hall, and this was a wonderful opportunity to hear the intimacy of her voice in a smaller venue and appreciate the intense control she has over quieter dynamics.
The evening concluded with encores. First Dessay and Cassard reprised “Clair de lune” in what Dessay announced as “half moon” (piano only) then “full moon” (with voice) phases. The second encore was “a song I love,” said Dessay: Rachmaninoff’s “Zdes’ korosho” (Now nice it is here). Ending all was an aria from Delibes’s Lakmé.