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Recordings

Felicien David: Le Desert (Naïve V5405)
30 Nov 2015

A Prize-Winning Rediscovery from 1840s Paris (and 1830s Egypt)

Félicien David’s intriguing Le désert, for vocal and orchestral forces plus narrator, was widely performed in its own day, then disappeared from the performing repertory for nearly a century.

Félicien David: Le désert, “ode-symphonie.”

Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Accentus [choral group], Orchestre de chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey.

Naïve V5405 [2CDs]

$17.99  Click to buy

Over the past few decades, it has been brought back to the concert hall—and introduced to the recording studio—by prominent and adventuresome conductors. The recording reviewed below is only the second that the complete work has ever received. On 18 November 2015, it was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque from the Académie Charles Cros, in the category “Redécouverte du répertoire” (that is: for rediscovering an important work from the past).

I wrote a mostly glowing review of this recording for American Record Guide (July/August 2015). It is reprinted below (with kind permission of ARG), lightly expanded and updated.

* * *

Félicien David (1810-76) was one of the most admired French composers of his day. He was particularly known for his songs and for Le désert. The latter, a fascinating 49-minute-long work for voices and orchestra, is performed (twice!) on the CD set here reviewed.

In the past three decades, a number of David’s works have received first recordings, including all his piano trios and string quartets, his brass nonet, and some of his twenty-four one-movement pieces for string quintet (with double-bass). Within the past year, two separate discs have surveyed his songs. A recent 2-CD set (on Naxos) makes a strong case for David’s imaginative comic opera Lalla-Roukh, whose plot unfurls in northern India and Uzbekistan.

A recording of his only grand opera, Herculanum (just released by Ediciones Singulares) features major singers, including Véronique Gens and Karine Deshayes. (The first stage production of Herculanum in nearly a century and a half will occur at Wexford Festival Opera, in Ireland, during October-November 2016.) Forthcoming are yet more first recordings, including Christophe Colomb, a work that reenacts and celebrates Columbus’s first voyage to America. Most of these recordings (including the present one) were made possible to a large extent by the scholarly efforts—and with the financial assistance—of the Centre de musique romantique française (located at the Palazetto Bru Zane, in Venice), which is directed by the astute and indefatigable musicologist Alexandre Dratwicki.

The various recordings mentioned above, like the live performances upon which some of them were based, have been greeted with delight by listeners and reviewers. Maybe I should say “with surprised delight.” Most of us tend to assume that, if music that was composed 170 years ago has gone unrecorded until now, the composer must be at fault. But Félicien David’s strong melodies, imaginative instrumental writing, and often endearingly innocent tone are helping to make his compositions welcome again.

Le désert and the aforementioned Christophe Colomb are works in a genre that David invented: the ode-symphonie. An ode-symphonie consists of a series of symphonic movements and vocal numbers, all linked by a narration in spoken verse. It was intended to be performed “in concert” (that is: without costumes, sets, or on-stage action). We might describe an ode-symphonie as a secular oratorio but with poetic spoken recitations added.

At its premiere in Paris (December 1844), Le désert was hailed as a masterpiece by Berlioz and other critics. Berlioz soon conducted Le désert himself, and the work went on to be performed and published (often in translation) across Europe and in the United States. Though the genre was short-lived, late echoes of it are perhaps found in such well-known works with narrator (in French: récitant) as Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Honegger’s Le roi David.

Le désert describes the progress of a caravan in an unidentified Arabic-speaking land. In part 1 of the work, the endless sands are pictured in slow string chords, the travelers sing their joy at being out under the open sky, but then are hit by a blinding sandstorm. In part 2, they pitch their tents for the night and entertain themselves and each other with love songs and with another choral declaration of freedom from urban constraints.

Two orchestral movements within Part II require a bit of explanation. The first, an energetic and emphatic movement entitled “Fantasia arabe,” presumably represents a shooting competition by men on horseback. (During the nineteenth century, this sort of equestrian event was widely known in Arabic-speaking lands as a fantasia.) The second, entitled “Danse des almées,” presumably encourages the listener to imagine the supple movements of some dancing women. (No females, by the way, sing in Le désert: the chorus is all-male.) The work’s third and final section begins with an orchestral evocation of a sunrise; a muezzin then calls the faithful to worship; and, finally, the travelers resume their journey across the trackless dunes.

David had spent the years 1833-35 in Egypt and other nearby lands. Le désert makes use of some general impressions that he had brought back with him to France and also incorporates specific tunes and dance rhythms (notably in one of the tenor solos in Part 2, entitled “Rêverie du soir,” and in the aforementioned “Fantasia arabe”) that he had transcribed while living and traveling in the region.

Le désert went largely unperformed from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth. One exception: a wonderful early twentieth-century recording exists of David’s version of the muezzin call, sung—in Arabic, as the score prescribes—by Eugène de Creus. (The long-held chords, originally in the strings, were here arranged for a mixed ensemble that the acoustic microphone could capture better.) Since the 1960s, David’s Le désert has been revived in performance at least five times that I know of. One of those performances—in Berlin, 1989—got recorded by Capriccio and is still available on that label. It can also be heard in its entirety on YouTube.

The recording here reviewed was made in May 2014 at a performance in Paris (at the Cité de la Musique), with some inserts from a one-hour touch-up recording session. (Major excerpts from it can be heard on YouTube, but the complete performance is only available as a commercial CD or download.) The performance, beautifully recorded, proves once again that the work’s wildfire success during the nineteenth century was no aberration: the music is full of novelty (considering its date: 1844) and has a satisfying shape, thanks to the composer but also to Auguste Colin, the skillful author of the spoken and sung verses.

The performance is mostly enchanting. Conductor Laurence Equilbey chooses appropriate tempos and encourages the chorus and orchestra to phrase more sensitively than their counterparts did in the 1989 Capriccio recording. I enjoyed various subtle shifts of tempo, some unwritten crescendos and decrescendos, and a few slight adjustments of rhythm to create a more overtly “Middle Eastern” effect. The superb male chorus is from Accentus, a choral ensemble of which Equilbey is music director and with which she has made numerous recordings. The wind solos are exquisitely turned.

Of the three solo vocal numbers, the longest two, “Hymne à la nuit” and “Rêverie du soir,” are sung by tenor Cyrille Dubois. Dubois’s vocal technique is typically French, he clearly understands every word he is singing, he keeps the vibrato under exquisite control, and he can file the voice down to a near-whisper while keeping the breath supported. (In the 1989 recording—the one that is on YouTube, complete—the Italian tenor sings all three numbers, healthily but with little nuance.) The third solo, a short but crucial “Chant du muezzin,” is here performed—over the aforementioned long-held string chords—by American tenor Zachary Wilder, who stepped in on short notice when the singer originally hired had to cancel. Wilder performs this muezzin call (using—like de Creus in the century-old recording mentioned above—the Arabic words) with alert rhythmic sense and clear coloratura. Wilder has been widely admired for his early-music performances under such conductors as William Christie and Christophe Rousset. His sweet, flexible voice adapts perfectly to this very different purpose. (Full disclosure: he was a student in an undergraduate music-history class that I taught at the Eastman School a decade or so ago. But I can take no credit for his remarkable artistry.)

I said the new CD set is “mostly enchanting.” The one slight disappointment, for me, is the spoken narration. Winling speaks gently, in a private, reflective voice that would surely not carry without a microphone, whereas the narrator in the 1989 Berlin performance used a fuller dynamic range. The majesty and terror of nature—repeatedly invoked by the chorus and orchestra—are better matched by a narrator declaiming with full breath. Winling’s quiet understatement makes him sound emotionally distant from the events he is describing, or regretful, or even pained.

The conductor and record label have decided to offer the work twice, for the price of a single CD: one disk has the performance without narration, the other with it. Anybody who dislikes Winling’s untheatrical manner—or who prefers not to have to listen to speech between musical numbers and “over” purely orchestral passages—can simply use the other disk, containing the un-narrated version. There is, to my know ledge, no historical precedent for performing Le désert without its spoken verses. I was prepared to hate the result but found that the music held up well on its own. I suspect that Equilbey may have here paved the way for future performances of Le désert without strophes déclamées, just as orchestras generally perform Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra without its original pedagogical chatter and sometimes even offer Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf minus the storyteller.

The importance of Le désert has been recognized by noted music historians, including Richard Taruskin ( Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 3, pp. 386-92) and Robert Laudon (in his path-breaking book The Dramatic Symphony, published in 2012 by Pendragon). Its influence is undeniable: not just on French composers, such as Bizet, Delibes, and Massenet, but also on Verdi (the opening of Attila; the ballet music he added for the Paris production of Otello), Grieg (“Morning Mood,” from Peer Gynt), and Borodin ( In the Steppes of Central Asia). Even apart from its historical importance, David’s appealing work rewards close listening and study. The full score is scheduled to be reprinted soon by Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich (Munich). The piano-vocal score can still be found in music libraries around the world. Who knows?—some enterprising choral conductor may soon be bringing the work to a concert hall near you.

One final grumble: the booklet’s (uncredited) translation of the poetic texts could have been a bit more precise. “Une amante” is not just any “lover” but a female one. “Les solitudes profondes” is bizarrely translated as “my vast wastes” (without any indication of who “my” might refer to); the phrase actually means something like “the endless empty spaces [all around our caravan].” And, to the four helpful footnotes, a fifth could have been added, indicating that the phrase “mon bien-aimé”—though masculine—refers most likely to a female beloved. The French phrase here was presumably Auguste Colin’s attempt at reflecting a centuries-old tradition, in Arabic and Ottoman poetry alike, by which a poet used a masculine-gender word to protect the identity of the woman whom he was praising and also to protect himself from accusations of expending too much time and attention on affairs of the heart instead of on such manly pursuits as religious devotion, scholarly study, productive labor, or patriotic soldiering. Recent scholars—such as Walter G. Andrews, in the richly documented book Ottoman Poetry, pp. 14-16—do allow that, at least in certain poems, the term “beloved” did refer to a man (perhaps a younger one than the poet). Still, there is no evidence in writings about Le désert, whether by David or by Berlioz or other contemporaries who wrote about the work, that a homoerotic subtext was in any way intended—or even noticed as possible—in this particular tenor solo.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. His most recent books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart . He is also the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by University of Rochester Press.

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