Marianne Crebassa's Secret is Out

In 2016, when I received Oh Boy!, the first solo album from mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, I thought, "What a cute title for a compilation of male operatic roles that were written for female singers"—"trouser roles" in operatic parlance—and put it aside. Now, having heard Crebassa's newest album, Secrets: French Songs, I realize that I made a big mistake. Crebassa is a major artist, with a sound and temperament that make Secrets a must-listen for lovers of vocal artistry.

Crebassa's superbly vocalized rendition of Debussy's disarmingly sensual Trois Chansons de Bilitis (Three Songs of Bilitis) begins a recital that also includes Debussy's lesser known Trois Mélodies (1891), Ravel's Shéhérazade (1903) and Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera (1907), Fauré's song cycle, Mirages (1919), four mélodies by Duparc, and Say's wordless Gezi Park 3 (2015). Given the quality of the 31-year old mezzo's performances, which were recorded with pianist Fazil Say in the resonant Great Hall of the Mozarteum, Salzburg, Secrets is essential listening for music lovers who lament the dearth of new recordings devoted to French mélodie, as well as for all who wish to explore Debussy's vocal works during the centennial of his death.

Debussy's Bilitis cycle famously sets three poems by Pierre Louÿs that the author fraudulently claimed were translations of works by a lesbian who lived in Greece, on the Isle of Bilitis, at the time of Sappho. Although the sexuality is sanitized—the poems speak of love between a woman and man—the eroticism and melancholic mystery that pervade the poems are virtually naked in their unadorned simplicity, and seem to presage Debussy's later opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

Crebassa and Say's Bilitis cycle more than holds its own alongside classic renditions by two women who worked with Debussy, Jane Bathori (who accompanies herself—1929) and Maggie Teyte (accompanied by Debussy specialist Alfred Cortot—1936), as well as far newer recordings by Frederica Von Stade and soprano Veronique Gens. Taking a somewhat middle ground between Bathori, whose singing and playing are simplicity itself, and Teyte, whose carefully calculated yet disarmingly emotional word painting and idiosyncratic downward portamenti create a mystery all their own, Crebassa deploys the natural sadness and sensual beauty of her instrument with a dynamic restraint that seems ideal. The coolness of her voice nails the intimacy of "La Chevelure" (below), as pianist Say brings out the colors beneath the words. No one can equal the cold emptiness that, in "Le Tombeau des Naïades" (The Tomb of the Naids), Teyte brings to the line "Les satyrs son mortes" (The satyrs are dead), but Crebassa's version has an integrity all its own. Instead of simply trailing off at the end of that final song, as so many other accompanists do, Say masterfully slows down in a manner that creates a thematic conclusion. Just marvelous.

When the 24/96 version of this recital is played on a good sound system, it is easy to hear how recording engineer Hugues Deschaux invests Say's piano with near orchestral colors and vibrancy. The soundscape works wonderfully for Ravel's Shéhérazade, which was a Bathori specialty. Crebassa's excitement is thrilling as she relates her reverie about the Asian continent, and her ability to lighten her voice when she sings of the enchanted flute shows a deep understanding of Ravel's creation. Thanks in no small part to Say's anything but prosaic, intimate opening to the final song, "L'Indifférent," Crebassa revels in the cycle's exoticism. The Vocalise is equally atmospheric, and Crebassa's low tones a thing of beauty.

Crebassa's intimate delivery, wide emotional range, and tonal luminescence work wonders with the earlier three songs by Debussy and the four Fauré Mirages. The raptness of her reverie and the subtlety of her shadings reflect a brilliance shared only by artists on the order of Teyte, Bernac, Panzéra, and Souzay. Listen to her sadness in Duparc's "Au pays où se fait la guerre" (To the land where there is war), as well as to the tears in her "Lamento" (lament).

If Crebassa's intentionally quasi-operatic Chanson triste (Song of Sadness) lacks the specificity of word painting that makes Teyte's more emotionally contained rendition unforgettable, it may nonetheless be closer to the French tradition that both Bathori and Bernac extol. While the protest at the core of Say's extended la-la-la is more compelling than his music, nothing can detract from the duo's accomplishment in French repertoire. Highest possible recommendation.

dalethorn's picture

My favorites here are the wordless vocals, if that's an OK term. The Debussy selections left me wanting a little more dynamic reading, but everything else was terrific.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Wide-ranging dynamics are not called for or even appropriate for songs as intimate as Les Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Do you have a favorite version that is "a little more dynamic"?

dalethorn's picture

That was just a new-listener impression compared to the Ravel and Duparc etc. But it's growing on me - I like it.

Herb Reichert's picture

that there is a sample - illuminating work Jason

Jason Victor Serinus's picture


pbarach's picture

I like this performance of Chansons de Bilitis, but Crespin/ Wustman is my favorite. Have you heard that one, Jason? (it's on youtube)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that I have it on disc but have inexplicably missed it. Friends have urged me to listen. I prefer higher sound quality than on YouTube, and shall pursue. Thank you.

There is also a wonderful performance from Frederica von Stade,

dougotte's picture

Jason, I always enjoy your reviews. I'm seeing a trend, where the titles you review are available only on CD and or download, or only download. I fear this is a trend. I'm more used to disc, and at my age am loath to switch to download (I did buy the Berg 3 Orchestral Pieces based upon your review, and enjoyed it). I guess I'll be forced into changing my ways...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I love the sound of SACD in my system. However, at this point, Harmonia Mundi and Channel Classics only issue SACD for their most popular artists, and only make the hi-res DSD or PCM files available for download. Warner, Sony, and UMG have stopped issuing SACD. Pentatone, BIS, Challenge Classics, LSO, SFS, 2L (whose recordings I have been lax in reviewing of late) and a few others still issue SACD.

Since you found that the download from SFS worked just fine, I would urge you to consider pursuing this route. Using an aftermarket player - Roon, Audirvana Plus, Amarra, or Pure Music - will help bunches with sound quality. There are all kinds of tricks to employ, including bypassing all the noise in a computer. This is why I insert USB sticks directly into my dCS gear.

dougotte's picture

Thanks for the info, Jason. I've been wondering how I'll enhance my system this year. Thanks for influencing me on how to spend my money! That's a little joke.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Now there's a twist, if ever there were one ;-) But, to get serious for a moment, take a look at how many of the Grammy nominees and winners, in multiple categories, are available in hi-res download. Unless MQA discs come along, it does seem the way to go... unless you just want to stream everything, and wait for Qobuz, HDTracks, Primephonic (for classical) and others to introduce hi-res streaming.

dougotte's picture

Last night I purchased the ALAC version. I listened to most of it and read the liner notes. It is a very lovely release. Say is indeed a sensitive accompanist and adds a lot to the performances.

Right now, because I've just started downloading, I'm using iTunes and sending it to my Parasound P5 via USB. The sound is very nice, but I would like a dedicated player w/ a display (so I can see which track is playing) and a remote. This way, I can also avoid the computer fan noise, as you mentioned. Any suggestions?

Thanks again for the review, Jason.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

My experience with all-in-one music servers in my reference system, which is the one place where I can fully evaluate them, is limited to the Aurender A-10 and the dCS Network Bridge connected to other DACs. I recommend reading those reviews. Rather than connect a whole computer via USB, I load USB sticks with files and insert them directly into the Network Bridge, and then use the dCS software and remote. No noise and excellent sound. An alternative is using Roon in the configuration noted below.

I also unequivocally recommend that, while using a computer, you ditch iTunes in favor of either Audirvana Plus on your existing computer or Roon on a NUC that you can place outside your music room and connect to your router via ethernet. Audirvana and Roon have apps that allow you to play remotely. Their respective websites plus AudioStream should have all the info.

By all means access Michael Lavorgna's reviews and recommendations on AudioStream. He is the expert.