Can one overdose on Debussy songs? Not when Stéphane Degout delivers them so emphatically, yet with such refinement. Too much languid Debussy, however, can act as a mild opiate, inducing a half-dream state. Perhaps this was the baritone’s intention — an evening split into two distinct halves, the first misty with melancholy, the second spiked with soft-touch irony. His baritone of suede was highly gratifying in both modes. In the second half, however, Poulenc’s Le Bestiaire (The Bestiary) and Ravel’s Histoires naturelles (Stories from Nature) not only showed off his dramatic gifts better, but seemed a natural fit for his vocal temperament. Although lyric in weight, Mr Degout’s voice has a darkish patina that never quite disappears, even when he lightens it. It gives his singing a cerebral dimension, as if he is examining emotions as he experiences them.

Stéphane Degout © Julien Benhamou
Stéphane Degout
© Julien Benhamou
The poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé, who filter feelings and memories through a succession of dissolving images, was served well by this slightly detached quality in the Debussy. Not as well, however, as the satirical texts in the Poulenc and Ravel. On the piano, Alain Planès was a highly alert partner throughout, and his Debussy made the desired impression of bright pigments melting in water, but something extra emerged after the break. Pianist and singer were more attuned to each other and their body language signalled a strong physical connection to the material.

The Debussy half certainly started with a splash. Mr Degout struck the right melancholic sweep in Verlaine’s eulogy La Mer est plus belle (The sea is more beautiful) to the swirling waves in the piano. It was the only truly spirited number until the final song before intermission, Ballade des femmes de Paris (The Ballad of the Women of Paris). This song, one of three by the 15th-century poet and serial delinquent François Villon, he of the “snows of yesteryear” fame, extolls the Parisian gift of the gab to a heel-clicking staccato rhythm. Mr Degout built a rowdy crescendo into it, and, at this point, it felt very welcome. The tempo markings for most of the Debussy songs do not lie — “slow and sorrowful”, “sad and slow”, “calm and expressive”, “very slow and very sweet”. Pace-wise, It was a homogeneous first half. Mr Degout’s diction was never less than 100% lucid and his phrasing honed down to the smallest detail. He did not shy away from loud climaxes, for example, as the lover crying for attention in Placet futil (Futile Plea). In fact, sometimes he was a little too loud for the Muziekgebouw, which has generous acoustics, but projecting in an unfamiliar venue can be tricky. He was possibly managing a little frog in his throat, no more than a tadpole really. There was a slight raspiness on certain diminuendos in the register breaks, but the smoothness and elasticity of the instrument remained mostly intact. With that uniquely French nasal resonance on deadpan low notes Mr Degout spelled the death of love between the couple in Colloque sentimental (Sentimental Meeting). There were many moments of pure lyricism, such as the mysterious waves coming to rest in La Grotte (The Cave), beautifully illustrated with piano dynamics.

The lighter tone introduced in the Ballade des femmes de Paris continued beyond Debussy. Poulenc’s Le Bestiaire, inspired by Orpheus charming the animals with his music, consists of six aphoristic miniatures by Apollinaire. The accompaniment depicts the undulating gait of a camel, a jumping grasshopper and dancing dolphins. Mr Planès played them all picturesquely, while Mr Degout delivered the lines, a mixture of the absurd and the wistful, with low-lidded suavity. Three songs by Satie followed, including Le Chapelier, in which the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland tries to fix his watch by dunking it in tea. Mr Degout sang it out with controlled hysteria. In contrast, La statue de bronze, about a bronze frog’s envy of her live counterparts, was a lesson in restrained elegance. The glass menagerie of delicate drollery continued with Ravel’s longer cycle. In Histoires naturelles Jules Renard’s poems are fascinating psychological studies — a pathetic peacock, an anxious cricket, an angler whose evening is glorified by a visit from a kingfisher. If perfection were possible, one would say this was a perfect execution, but near-perfect will have to do. Each portrait was lit up in vivid detail. Moreover, the balance between voice and piano was highly satisfying, both equally eloquent, even audacious when warranted, as in the angry fits of the pugnacious guineafowl in La Pintade. No encore could compete with the Ravel cycle, but his Chanson Romanesque from Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, with dissonance twisting its throbbing Spanish rhythm, was in the same sweet-sour vein.