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In the last few years, soprano Natalie Dessay has begun to move away from high-profile opera roles and into the more intimate worlds of art song, theatre, and popular music. The change is largely due to the host of chronic vocal problems she has suffered that have placed more demanding opera roles out of her reach.
Still, her nimble voice and feathery tone, as evidenced in her Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall Saturday night, is still capable of sustaining great expressive intensity.
Dessay joined French pianist Philippe Cassard for a kaleidoscopic program of German and French art songs that was mesmerizing more for its interior depth of expression than vocal fireworks.
The recital began with a collection of songs by Clara Schumann. For Liebst du um Schönheit, perhaps the best known of the composer’s vocal works, Dessay sang with a light, flexible sound. She supplied a more deliberate tone to match the story of the parting lovers in Sie liebten sich beide.
The Brahms and Richard Strauss songs she performed Saturday are also works of musical subtlety and sentimentalism. With sweet, breathy phrases, Dessay rendered Brahms’ Lerchengesang as if it were a lullaby. Her singing of Geheimnis, to echo the song’s text, had the gentle feel of a spring breeze. Strauss’s Wasserrose sounded silky, and she gave the dark romanticism of Die Nacht a haunting touch.
Dessay could likely find no more suitable keyboard partner than Philippe Cassard. The pianist’s golden tone and vivid playing, followed her every move. He performed the waltzing lines of the Strauss’ Ich schwebe with an elegant touch to complement Dessay’s weightier vocal quality. Cassard’s accompaniment to Clara Schumann’s Er ist der gekommen in Sturm und Regen was tempestuous.
The singer, though, seemed most at home with the more delicate French songs on the program.
Dessay brought out the misty images and ghostly textures of Henri Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage with grace. And the phrases of the composer’s Extase, with their sudden modal shifts, seemed to waft like perfume in the night air.
The set of Fauré songs were similarly elegant. Cassard’s shimmering piano lines made an exquisite match for Dessay’s supple singing in Clair de lune. The ethereal verses of En sourdine were affecting thanks to her breathy vocal phrases.
The gem of the recital’s second half was Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire.
Louise de Vilmorin’s poetry, which serves as the basis for this cycle, is imbued with veiled sorrow and dark humor. Here, Dessay was at her most expressive. She gave Dans l’herbe hints of anger and sadness, reflecting the text’s tale of the young man’s untimely death. Mon cadaver est doux comme un gant, Vilmorin’s mysterious description of a corpse, rang with quiet intensity. Dessay sang the dark sentimental lines of Violon with a milky lyricism.
Two songs by Debussy featured the soprano in some of her most lustrous singing of the evening. Her winding vocalises of Apparition and Romance d’Ariel streamed effortlessly from the songs’ watery impressionistic textures.
Warm applause brought Dessay and Cassard back for a string of encores. The first, what Cassard referred to as a “half-moon and full-moon set,” featured the duo in a honeyed pastiche of Debussy’s Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque and the composer’s posthumously published vocal setting of Verlaine’s poem.
The remaining pieces, Rachmaninoff’s song Zdes’ khorosho and the aria “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve” from Delibes’ Lakmé, were both haunting and tender.
For the next Celebrity Series recital, pianist Evgeny Kissin will perform music by Schubert and Scriabin 5 p.m. March 16 at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.
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