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Irresistible though she is, Dessay sings Bach with little of the joie de vivre that she brings to Handel, the vocal nudge and wink of ironic detachment that lets the music suggest more than one mood. Her German is a bit stiff and, striving for correctness, splutters too many consonants for comfort. Emmanuelle Haim directs the Concert d’Astree fluidly but without much byplay. When Natalie sings Ich habe genug, I’ve just about had it, too.
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Solo vocal recital discs flood my desk. Few grip the ear so fast and tight as this delightful discovery from a composer deservedly forgotten. Anton Rubinstein was bigger in his day than Tchaikovsky and far more powerful in Moscow, where he cofounded the conservatory with his brother Nikolai, who vetoed Tchaik’s first concerto.
May is closest to Lenya in Surabaya-Jonny, farthest in Eisler’s Song of the Wife and the German Soldier. Where Lenya is always a weary woman of the world, May lets you know that she lives in a prison state and is forced to imagine whatever life there is beyond. In Evelyn Roe’s Legend, by Hans Dieter Hosalla, she borrows mannerisms from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. In Mother Courage’s Song, by Paul Dessau, she is vocally indomitable. At 85, Gisela May continues to give cabaret performances with the Berliner Ensemble, a last living witness of two awful epochs. She demands to be heard.