DEBUSSY Songs Vol 4 (Lucy Crowe)
Hyperion’s excellent Debussy song series has evolved over the years from what was originally a stand-alone recital by Christopher Maltman and Malcolm Martineau, released in 2003 (5/03). In Vol 2 (6/12), with Lorna Anderson and Lisa Milne, Martineau added the major cycles for female voice, while Vol 3 (11/14) found Jennifer France and James Rutherford tackling Debussy’s settings of Théodore de Banville and Paul Bourget. The latter included some of the recently discovered early songs, written between 1880 and 1884, for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, and a further selection of Vasnier songs, 15 in all, dominates the latest volume, outstandingly sung by Lucy Crowe. France joins her for ‘Chanson espagnole’ for two sopranos; Maltman returns for the brief 1898 cycle Nuits blanches.
Throughout, we gradually become aware of Debussy’s original voice emerging from his response to disparate influences. Some of the Vasnier songs clearly started out as fashionable display pieces in exotic or Orientalist mode. The melismas that pervade ‘Rondel chinois’ and ‘Flots, palmes, sables’, the latter scored for piano and harp, are reminiscent of Delibes’s Lakmé, though the chromatic harmonies are already strikingly adventurous. There are three settings of Théophile Gautier, of which ‘Coquetterie posthume’, all emotional ambiguity and bittersweet irony, is the best. More important here, though, are the early Verlaine settings, some of which Debussy later revised or rewrote. The original ‘Fantoches’ ends with a coloratura passage of considerable difficulty. The first ‘En sourdine’, meanwhile, is exquisite, and deserves to be better known. Crowe and Martineau also include the ravishing ‘Beau soir’, published in 1891 (we don’t know when it was written) and close with Debussy’s last song, ‘Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons’, written shortly before his cancer surgery in 1915, and angrily inveighing against the depredations of war.
In wonderful voice throughout, Crowe very much makes this repertory her own. Ascents into the stratospheres are all beautifully and securely accomplished, and those long melismas are tautly controlled and always expressive, never vacuous. Textual awareness and understanding shine through in the elegant wit of the Verlaine songs and in the reflective if intense Mallarmé setting ‘Apparition’, among the last songs Debussy wrote for Vasnier. She and France are delightful together duetting in parallel harmonies in ‘Chanson espagnole’. Maltman sounds forceful and anguished in Nuits blanches, usually regarded as an adjunct to Golaud’s music in Pelléas, though its murky, Sadean eroticism – Debussy wrote his own text – steers it closer, perhaps, to the eventually unfinished La chûte de la maison Usher. Martineau, who has been the series’ presiding genius, is a flawless Debussy interpreter, meanwhile, playing with infinite subtlety, nuance and colour. Exceptional.