Norman Lebrecht's Album of the Year 2012

Debussy: Clair de lune by Philippe Cassard, Natalie Dessay, Catherine Michel, Karine Deshayes, Le Jeune Choeur de Paris

He's been bombarded with new albums this year, some good, some less so, but out of the cream of the crop, Norman Lebrecht has picked the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Label: EMI

Rating 5

Product details

2012 has been a bumper year – a bumper-to-bumper year – for vocal recitals. Most were fashioned along 1950s lines: pick six show-stoppers and pad them out with another six you hope the average listener (whoever that might be) has never heard of before. By September, I was having to pay the dustmen to cart them away. Someone in the record business told me that landfill CDs are used to pave new motorways. Next time you take a drive, count the singers beneath your wheels. And bumpers.

On more imaginative lines, I was hugely grateful to receive the complete piano music of John Cage on 18 CDs, played by Steffen Schleiermacher on MDG, followed by the complete Arnold Schoenberg piano works on just one CD. Why did no-one think of that before? The set is on a new label, Odradek, that both looks and sounds good enough to eat. The pianist is Pina Napolitano: you will hear more of her. 

I had more fun than was decent – mostly for the wrong reasons – with Sony’s exhumations of the Glenn Gould sessions with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a record made in hell. And I was much beguiled by Hyperion’s Portuguese Love Songs. On that same label, Natalie Clein issued what struck me as the best Bloch Schelomo on record – yes, a bumper year, after all. And then along came Nicola Benedetti's Silver Violin on Decca, an original confection of movie-linked music and the ultimate antidote to formula albums. 

But when all’s done and dusted, one album stood out half a mile from the pile. 

Not much was heard this year from Natalie Dessay. The French soprano-actress had a run of high-profile cancellations and suffered the death of her manager, Herbert Breslin. In early spring, she issued on Virgin Classics a recital of Debussy songs that I do not expect ever to hear bettered. 

Ms Dessay weaves a spell of unremitting fascination

Everything about this album is five-star: the pianist, Philippe Cassard; the sound quality, the order of songs; and the tinted cover that takes us straight to the heart of Debussy’s world, where Ms Dessay weaves a spell of unremitting fascination. Some find Debussy intimidating and cold. In Ms Dessay’s immaculate presentation, he has the grip of a couturier’s window on the Champs Elysées. You are rooted to the spot.

Artists: Natalie Dessay (soprano), Philippe Cassard (piano)

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific commentator on music and cultural affairs and an award-winning novelist. See his blog Slipped Disc.