Soprano Sandrine Piau impressed me considerably with her period-authentic performance on her recent 2005 recording, "Handel Opera Seria", as she provides expressive vocalism, a wide-ranging coloratura and an immaculate technique. This 2003 release applies her talent to the demanding art of French song, which has been well trodden of late with superbly rendered releases from the likes of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, lyric tenor Rolando Villazón and countertenor David Daniels. Piau has the advantage of singing in her native tongue, and she is matched admirably by accompanist Jos van Immerseel, who plays on an 1897 Érard grand piano to uphold the integrity of Debussy's original compositions. The combination of the piano's precise and subtle sound and Piau's clear diction and phrasing makes Debussy's music transcendent.
The program is organized chronologically with two song cycles from Debussy's later years, the "Ariettes oubliées" and the "Proses lyriques", sandwiched between songs from Debussy's youth ("Mélodies de jeunesse") and his final cycle based on texts by Stéphane Mallarmé. It's obvious from the opening song, "Apparition", that Piau loves this music, as she milks the intensely expressive line with vigor and lets her supple voice soar with ease. In "C'est l'extase", the first song of the "Ariettes oubliées", she gently brings out each syllable's meaning indicating a gradual maturity in approach that is quite moving. But unlike Graham's consistently sonorous set, Piau lets loose with exuberant abandon on "Paysages belges: Chevaux de bois" when she enthusiastically describes the unfettered excitement of a carousel from a child's perspective. The last cycle is perhaps Piau's most accomplished, as she lends symmetry to the three songs from the sunrise described in the opening "Soupir" matches her glowing tone in the last song, "Évantail". Piau sings with astonishing precision and clarity of tone throughout no matter what the dramatic setting, whether she is being mournful or girlish. With the deeper tessitura of each succeeding cycle, Piau's voice deepens, and her interpretations take on a burnished quality. It is thrilling to hear such an ideal match between composer, voice and instrument.