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Le jazz tiède

The crossover album: a hint that that an artist has either exhausted all the repertory at her command and owes her record label a new release or that her waning vocal resources really shouldn’t be taxed much further than an octave. I’m sure we all have our favorite party discs of beloved divas slumming Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, or worse.  

Who among us can resist the lure of a beloved singer in offbeat repertoire? But then, who among us has been strong enough to draw the line after Eileen Farrell’s extraordinary contribution to the American songbook? Since then, we’ve had Leontyne with André Previn, Kiri with Nelson Riddle (and everything up the octave), Jessye with John Williams with and without the Boston Pops, and even Renée smelling like teen spirit. The bastard stepchild of all this slumming most certainly is Leonard Bernstein’s studio recording of his very own “West Side Story.”  Oh, don’t worry, I’ve bought them all.

The music labels persist in these offerings because they sell and you didn’t have to be prescient to see this current duo forming in the mind of some eager record producer over at French Erato and Warner Classics. The teaming of the venerable French composer Michel Legrand with Natalie Dessay was surely a fait accompli. The result is the modestly titled “Entre elle et lui” (Between her and him).

Mme. Dessay only just formally retired from the opera stage with her final Manon last October in Paris, having decided to turn her formidable skills to presenting herself as a legitimate actress and chansonnier. M. Legrand is apparently game for another “greatest hits” album “diva style” since it’s been more than a decade since he recorded nearly the exact same program with Jessye Norman. (For those of you who missed that one the first time around, here’s a wonderful opportunity to rush right out and miss it again.)

Apparently this newest collaboration turned out joyously since they both gush over the other in the liner notes like long-lost lovers and the CD booklet pictures them repeatedly pawing each other so ferociously that Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna were forced to turn their heads away in modesty.

Mr. Legrand’s specialité is, or course, la ballade romantique and he’s written a lot of them. We have songs and duets here from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Peau d’Âne, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and, yes, Yentl… to say nothing of classics standards like “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”, “Les Moulins de mon coeur,” and the theme from Summer of ‘42.

Ms. Dessay does manage to scale back her instrument to that of a diseuse fairly easily. But a voice with no bottom and a thin top really doesn’t belong in this fach:  most female singers of popular music are mezzos for a reason. Her sung English is nearly flawless and mostly accent-free. Frankly, it’s almost as if she’s made a study of which vowels sound better with a little Gallic flavor. There’s also a generous helping of straight tone at the top which, while it’s nothing new from this singer and a valid stylistic choice, doesn’t enhance enjoyment levels.

“La Valse des lilas” finds her doing some low-grade scatting and jazz acrobatics which, although they couldn’t possibly be termed stratospherique, certainly did nothing for my nerves. The other problem is the very aggressive miking which even in a contemplative number like”Papa Can You Hear Me?” all but invites the response,”Far too well, I’m afraid.”

Mr. Legrand remains a nimble accompanist at 81 and he certainly knows how to play his own music. I find him refreshingly straightforward as his own interpreter where he could be lachrymose and indulgent in these songs as so many have been before. His one party trick consists of fingering a triplet up and down the chord in question with astonishing facility. He also duets rather piquantly with Ms. Dessay on two numbers to wholly charming effect even if pitches tend to stray. He’s backed up by Pierre Boussaguet on the double bass and Francoise Laizeau on drums and they prove an accomplished trio.

Outside of the big ballads the album features the kind of uptempo light jazz tracks that sound, not surprisingly, like the underscoring for the 60’s era art-house films they are. “Chanson des jumelles” from the movie Les Demoiselles de Rochefort finds our soprano in duet with Patricia Petibon, no less, achieving a horrifyingly accurate synchronicity. Happily, the accordionist wasn’t able to make the studio sessions that day.

Ms. Dessay’s husband, baritone Laurent Naouri, joins her for the famous duet from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and I was very close to falling completely under its spell until about the five minute mark when the main theme modulated up, yet again, and it all became too much fromage.

I think “What are you doing the rest of your life?” remains the best track on the album. Even at nearly eight minutes in length it shows both singer and composer hitting an elegiac stride that, though broken at the halfway mark by an enormous improvisational interlude, displays a light touch. Similarly the baroque veneer of “Conseils de la fée des lilas” from Peau d’Âne finds  Dessay in a familiarly classical mode and pleasantly underplaying.

She introduces a little mild growling into one of the saucier numbers and I suddenly had visions of our Natalie being presented at the Folies Bergère, swathed in feathers and sequins in the Sevent Circle of Cabaret Hell.

Frankly, I think the producers here lost a bet. Even if the majority of the music is relentlessly bourgeois there is evidently great joy in its making from the participants and it would have been a much fuller experience to see this as a filmed concert. Ms. Dessay excels at live performance and it would have enabled the viewer to share in this special collaboration.  Safely though, as a souvenir of what was obviously a very happy project, for any fans of both these artists it’s an easy recommendation.

The booklet includes the aforementioned valentines and photos as well as all the lyrics of the songs but, oddly, no translations. So, English remains English and French remains French. Even though I generally break out in a rash at the sound of jazz, I’m happy to have made it through this album without even a single dose of antihistamine.

18 comments

  • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

    What is it with Legrand and opera stars? Also why do all opera stars live for Streisand….

    • MontyNostry says:

      Legrand was, apparently, a pupil of the great Nadia Boulanger, so maybe that adds to his appeal.

      For our readers in London, Nat and Mick can be caught live at Palladium on May 4th.

      http://www.london-theatreland.co.uk/theatres/the-london-palladium/michel-legrand-and-natalie-dessay.php

    • Salome Where She Danced says:

      “Classical Barbra” made them all verklempt!

    • alejandro says:

      I think Streisand was one of the greatest singers who’s ever lived. Granted she began falling into some really bad habits (oversinging, bad taste, etc.), but the entirety of her 60s output (well, save What About Today?) and some of her 70s output is impeccable. And her last two studio albums are amazing listens because her voice is half gone so she has to go back and focus on the text and not rely on big money notes.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

        alejandro, I couldn’t agree more. Streisand in the 60s, 70s and a good chunk of her 80s material (Guilty, Broadway album…ok thats it, but still) is *AMAZE* and I love that opera singers may be fellow stans.

  • PetertheModest says:

    I thought Dessay had to go into “popular” music and musical theatre because she no longer had the voice for opera.

  • oedipe says:

    it would have been a much fuller experience to see this as a filmed concert.

    You still have the opportunity to enjoy an even fuller, LIVE experience, in June, in the superb environment of the Château de Versailles:

    http://www.chateauversailles-spectacles.fr/fr/spectacles/2013/nathalie-dessay-michel-legrand-entre-elle-lui

  • oedipe says:

    they both gush over the other in the liner notes like long-lost lovers and the CD booklet pictures them repeatedly pawing each other so ferociously that Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna were forced to turn their heads away in modesty.

    What do you expect? The French are not just unwashed, but also promiscuous.

  • tiger1dk says:

    What an amusing (and acerbic) review -- well done!

  • Porgy Amor says:

    An excellent review, Patrick Mack. I laughed out loud at the “pawing” bit.

    I cannot comment on the Dessay/LeGrand, but to your crossover list, I will add McNair with Previn, in Kern and Arlen respectively. When I’m in the right mood, I rather enjoy their drowsy, languid approach to the ballads (“Remind Me,” “Right As The Rain,” “This Time The Dream’s On Me”). The uptempo swinging stuff, not as much, and “Two Ladies in the Shade” reminds me a bit of that recurring SNL sketch with the two music teachers giving energetic but square performances of what the kids like.

  • m. croche says:

    Ms. Dessay’s husband, baritone Laurent Naouri, joins her for the famous duet from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and I was very close to falling completely under its spell until about the five minute mark when the main theme modulated up, yet again, and it all became too much fromage.

    In my view, those half-step modulations are an integral part of the song -- a musical symbol of the never-to-be-consummated love between Genevieve an Guy. There is a wonderful recording of this song by Legrand in a piano trio where the half-step modulations ascend to dizzying heights. Beginning in c minor, he modulates to c# minor after 8 bars, then to d minor, then to eb minor, etc. He plays 20 choruses, climbing more than an octave from a c minor to a minor a “thirteenth” above the original home key.

  • Salome Where She Danced says:

    Von Otter just did a Frenchy chanson-y crossover, too (for Naive) that’s better, and she’s not even French! (And she’s a decade older than Dessay).

  • alejandro says:

    Maybe this is the Dessay fanboy in me, but I really loved this album. I also found her voice perfect for this music. I found it more mod/cool . . . and there are many lighter female voices in pop music … as long as you move past the Whitneys and Adeles and look at folks like Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, Feist or Francoise Hardy (speaking of . . . I think Dessay’s next album should be an album of songs by Hardy).

    What’s funny is that “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” is my LEAST favorite track here. The Streisand version is hard to beat and I think the jazzy arrangement just never lets the song soar in the choruses. Conversely, “Papa Can You Hear Me?” a song I never really ever wanted to hear again makes me weep. The way Dessay says “Papa” with barely a whisper breaks my heart.

    “Chanson de Delphine,” the Duet from Umbrellas of Cherbourg, “le Cinema,” and “Cake d’amour” are all very good. I hear an incredible commitment to phrasing and text here . . . which is not surprising because I find Dessay consistently comes up with very intelligent choices in interpreting her material. She may not have a foghorn of a voice and it may have gotten very reedy of late but I am a sucker for someone who knows how to X-Ray a song the way she does. Perhaps her leaving opera and exploring chanson, pop (and hopefully stuff like Reynaldo Hahn or showtunes . . . I hope John Doyle casts her as Irma La Douce at Encores this spring or she gets to play Dot in Sunday in the Park with George somewhere) may allow her way of blending her musicianship and acting ability with a whole new repetoire.