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12 Nov 2015

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

Tassis Christoyannis, baritone/Thanassis Apostolopoulos, piano

Aparté/Palazetto Bru Zane AP086—[CD]

$21.99  Click to buy

Now two estimable Greek-born performers offer an excellent and varied selection of 18 David songs in performances that bring delight to ear and mind.

Félicien David is not generally thought of as a songwriter. He is known in the history books (e.g., Richard Taruskin’s thoughtful appreciation in Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 3) for a single, large-scale work: a “symphonic ode”—David’s term for a kind of a secular oratorio, but with spoken narration in verse—entitled Le désert (1844), about a caravan moving through a sandy wasteland and stopping overnight at an oasis. Le désert is available in a recording of a live performance (1989), with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, on a Capriccio CD; a second recording, made in Paris, appeared on the Naïve label in November 2014. Other CDs in the past three decades have featured first recordings of David’s three piano trios; his four string quartets; 11 of the 24 delightful one-movement pieces for string quintet (quartet plus double-bass) that David published under the title Les quatre saisons; some short works for violin and piano; and two collections of piano pieces: Les brises d’Orient and Les minarets (first published together under the title Mélodies orientales). Best of all, for those among us who believe that the composer was one of the most imaginative and influential of his generation, David’s operas are finally getting the attention from performers that scholars such as Dorothy V. Hagan, Morton Achter, and Hugh Macdonald have long urged: the comic opera Lalla-Roukh, touching and witty by turns, on the Naxos label, and his one grand opera, Herculanum. The latter, in a recording that features Véronique Gens and Karine Deshayes, appeared in September 2015 on the Ediciones Singulares label, as no. 10 in an “Opéra français” series. That series of opera recordings is sponsored by the Centre de Musique Romantique Française, an admirable organization—based at the Palazetto Bru Zane in Venice—that has helped fund most of the recent David recordings, including the present song recital. Herculanum is also going to get its first staging in nearly a century and a half: at Wexford Festival Opera, in Ireland (October-November 2016). Amazing to see a forgotten composer getting attention like this—and the attention is extraordinarily well deserved.

Sample Track: Félicien David — “Le nuage”

The songs on this CD—dating largely from the late 1830s and 1840s—show remarkable range in mood: from tender confessions of love (“J’ai peur de l’aimer”; “L’amitié”) and reflections on the transience of human life and sorrows (“Le nuage”) to sharply contrasting genre pieces (the folk-Italian “Saltarelle”; a barcarolle entitled “Le pêcheur à sa nacelle”; a soldier’s song, “En chemin”—i.e., “Let’s hit the road!”; and the lullaby “Dormez, Marie”). Two of the songs set, very effectively, poems by Théophile Gautier that vocal fanciers know much better from versions by Berlioz (“Reviens, reviens”—Berlioz’s “Absence”—and “La chanson du pêcheur”—Berlioz’s “Sur les lagunes”). Most of the songs are strophic, but David sometimes enriches the piano accompaniment in the second and later strophes. A few create substantially different music for the final strophe (“Adieux à Charence”) or are through-composed and intense, ignoring the meter and rhyme of the verse in order to create a kind of operatic scena or accompanied recitative (“L’océan: méditation”). Aside from Gautier, the poets are all forgotten figures today: some were personal friends of the composer (e.g., Emma Tourneux de Voves), but others were widely published at the time, e.g., Charles de Marecourt, Marc Constantin, and Eugène Barateau.

Most distinctive are two songs to texts written in the voice of a Middle Eastern man. “Le tchibouk” draws its title from a word indicating a long-stemmed Turkish pipe. The song quickly reels off a host of stereotypical images of Middle Eastern life: the curling bluish smoke that rises from the pipe, the hazy feeling that smoking the pipe induces, the coffee’s fragrant aroma, the gracious movements of Fatma the dancing-woman, and the attentions of ma brune amoureuse (“my dark-complexioned lover”).

Even more specific and characterful are the verbal images in “Le Bédouin,” a song whose poem was described by its author, Jacques Cognat, as “imité de l’arabe” (i.e., in the style of an Arab poem). The character who sings it, a Bedouin Arab, urges his camel (well, we have to figure out that it’s his camel—the Bedouin calls it “my faithful friend”) to fly with him across the desert “like a gazelle,” and he compares the animal’s swaying to that of “an enticing dancing-woman.” As the song proceeds, the man shows himself to be full of yearning but also religiously devout: “In anticipation of seeing me again, my beloved has put kohl around her lovely eyes. . . . [Refrain:] Allah, grant the true believer [i.e., me] a safe journey. You alone are wise, and I am a Muslim!” David and Cognat had lived for a time in Egypt during the early 1830s as members of the Saint-Simonian movement, a utopian-socialist movement that sought, among other things, to modernize the educational system in Egypt and to persuade Egyptian officials to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Suez. It is perhaps for this reason that poet and composer created a song that, quite unusually for that time, conveys in sympathetic terms the desires, travails, and modest lifestyle of an Arab desert-dweller. (Regarding the Suez project: the Saint-Simonians believed that a canal would enable the major world nations to become more interdependent economically and that this would make them less likely to wage war against each other. The Suez Canal would finally be built some thirty-five years later by governments and banking organizations that gave little or no credit to these foresighted thinkers.)

The music of “Le tchibouk,” with its bolero-like rhythm, may seem more Spanish than Arab in style, but it is undeniably attractive. “Le Bédouin” uses a quasi-Middle Eastern style that David made famous in Le désert and that other composers, such as Bizet and Delibes, soon copied. Most notable here are frequent pounding chords—which suggest the beating of a drum—and some subtle touches of modality.

The translations in the booklet, by Mary Pardoe, are generally skillful and communicative. But she seems not to have understood that the “loyal friend” in “Le Bédouin” is a camel rather than, say, a male servant. Several times she even changes a plural verb to a singular (e.g., “volons” becomes “let me fly”), missing the basic point that the Bedouin and his camel are inseparable companions.

The baritone, Tassis Christoyannis, has sung such roles as Germont père and Don Giovanni at major opera houses in France and Germany. He applies an impressively wide range of colors to this repertoire. The voice is always fully supported, with a wondrous legato. The high range is silky-smooth, yet the voice expands gratifyingly in the more emphatic songs. Christoyannis nicely elaborates on the flamenco-like vocal cadenza at the end of “Le tchibouk” and throws in a high note at the very end of the song: a spontaneous-sounding and appropriate touch. His pronunciation is remarkably fine for someone born outside of France, though I caught some slightly problematic vowels (the e in “sera” and the nasal i in “étincelle”). Throughout the disc, the pianist, Thanassis Apostolopoulos, gives fine support, relishing the occasional moments of more elaborate figuration.

Despite the riches on display here, numerous other equally fine songs had to be excluded. A second CD of David’s songs, just released in France (on the Passavant-Boutique label), offers many of the same items but also some different ones, including the marvelous “Tristesse de l’odalisque.” The singer on that CD, Artavazd Sargsyan, is a young, award-winning lyric tenor—and apparently French-born, to judge by his exquisitely comfortable handling of the texts. He takes slightly faster tempos, ably seconded by a highly responsive pianist, Paul Montag. Still, nobody has recorded one of my favorites: “Sultan Mahmoud” (to words by, again, Théophile Gautier). The score can be easily found in David Tunley’s indispensable six-volume anthology Romantic French Song, 1830–1870 (Garland Press, 1994).

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. His books include two from Cambridge University Press: Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Musical Exoticism from the Renaissance to Mozart. A version of the review printed above originally appeared in American Record Guide.

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