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Félicien David Revived Digitally


Félicien David (1810-’76) was widely known in the 19th century for Le désert (The Desert), a most unusual work that was performed throughout Europe and the Americas, including under Carl Bergmann in Boston’s fabled Music Hall, the 3000-seat auditorium on Winter Place built by  Harvard Musical Association members in 1852 that would serve as home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1887 until the opening of Symphony Hall, in 1900.

First heard in Paris in 1844, Le désert is a highly descriptive work for tenor (or two tenors in different movements), chorus, orchestra, and narrator. In a famous review, Berlioz hailed the work in detail, clearly relishing the chance to show that he was not alone among French composers in trying to expand the scope of concert music to include extensive description and even narration. Le désert now exists in two CD recordings, very communicative and appealing [HERE]. Two of David’s operas have also been recorded—again in fine performances—in recent years: the comic opera Lalla-Roukh and the grand opera Herculanum, which pits ascetic early Christians against luxury-drenched Romans and pitting all of them against a wily, shape-shifting Satan. (More on these operas below. Note: Félicien David should not be confused with Ferdinand David, for whom Mendelssohn wrote his violin concerto.)

The present 3-CD set includes yet other works of this once-renowned composer. It is the fourth in the series of multi-CD French-composer “portraits” organized and supported (both financially and through scholarly expertise) by the Center for French Romantic Music. This set devoted to David (i.e., vol. 4 in the series of composer portraits) consists almost entirely of previously unrecorded works in a range of genres. Many of the works are done with period instruments. The single most important offering is the 79-minute-long Christophe Colomb, ou la découverte du Nouveau Monde (Christopher Columbus; or, The Discovery of the New World). This was David’s second and final work in a genre that he had invented (for Le désert) and that only a few composers used after him: he called it ode-symphonie or, we might say, ode-cum-symphony, because it included not only musical forces but an extended explanation of the plot, in verse, by a narrator (either between musical sections or even speaking over orchestral passages). In David’s Christophe Colomb, the spoken verses are in alexandrines (the standard line length of classic French tragedy and serious poetry). The narration was written mainly by Joseph Méry, who would later be the primary librettist of Verdi’s Don Carlos.

Musicologist Annegret Fauser has demonstrated [HERE] that the whole work—with its emphasis on group solidarity and obedience to a chosen leader—is a barely disguised embodiment of the ideological values of the Saint-Simonian movement, an early socialist group to which David was devoted his whole life. Indeed, at least two of the movements are simply Saint-Simonian choruses that David had composed for the movement in its heyday, over 15 years earlier. As re-texted by Méry, they blend in just fine with the rest of the score, and are orchestrated effectively by David.

Christophe Colomb is quite persuasive on its own terms. True, a listener today may do well not to be thinking about the depredations of colonialism in order to get any enjoyment out of the portrayals of Caribbean natives. There is a surprisingly delicate “Dance of the Savages” and a puzzling lullaby sung by a Native American mother—is her little child dead?

Indeed, this is often the case when we are listening to works of past eras: we need to distance ourselves from social attitudes of the time if we are to make empathetic and aesthetic contact with the work. As Brian Morton recently argued in the New York Times Book Review (“Past Tension,” January 13th), exposing ourselves to the limited perceptions of a past era can alert us to limitations—perhaps rather different ones—in our own attitudes today.

The strongest numbers in Christophe Colomb include the duet in which a sailor and his wife bid each other farewell and the aforementioned “Caribbean” numbers in part 4 (which several scholars have found worthy of explication). The duet in particular seems to predict the arc of David’s later career. He was to have great success in the 1850s-’60s as a composer of operas with exotic tinges; his Lalla-Roukh (1862) was performed nearly 400 times at the Opéra-Comique before falling out of the repertory.

The lullaby of the mother in Christophe Colomb contains surprising turns of phrase in melody, and chattering orchestral imitations of nature sounds. Indeed, there are imaginative orchestral passages throughout, including the preludes to each of the four parts, the fluttering texture under the wordless “Ah”s of the genies [i.e., spirits] of the ocean, and a wondrous crescendo as the sailors spy land at the beginning of part 4. The choral writing is nicely varied from one number to the next. The harmonic language is often plain, as is the case in many French and Italian operas of the 1840s. But this, too, is part of the charm of a work redolent of its era’s values. The simple harmonies reflect the libretto’s naive idealism, but they are made to sound fresh by textures and colors that, even today, can surprise and delight. And as so often with works by David, melodic sense is strong throughout.

The performance is immensely attractive. Baritone Josef Wagner ably conveys Columbus’s confidence in his historic mission, tenor Julien Behr sings the several roles written for that voice range firmly and beautifully, soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery renders her two roles (sailor’s girlfriend and the mother) warmly, although her vibrato sometimes slows to a near wobble. The chorus and period-instrument orchestra perform superbly under François-Xavier Roth’s spirited and subtle direction. I love the woody sound of some of the wind instruments (notably flutes and English horn). The actor who recites the verses connecting the various scenes often sounds uninvolved, but that is preferable to overemoting, especially for a recording meant to be listened to many times.

Le jugement dernier (The Last Judgment) is a fascinating piece for chorus and orchestra, inspired by the book of Revelation. The Last Trumpet sounds a fanfare (here a brass choir, in harmony and with interesting antiphonal and echo effects), the souls of the Damned regret their actions (to a wonderful minor-mode march for the strings), and they get consigned to Hell (very effective speed-up and turn to the surprising major mode, which quickly yields to dissonant harmonies). The souls of the Blessed then crown the whole with hymns of thanksgiving. Some moans and praises happen simultaneously, from the two separated choruses, creating effects that are particularly impressive if one is following the text.

The whole 14-minute scene was intended to form the conclusion of David’s 1859 opera Herculanum, after Mt. Vesuvius buries the town. It was removed before the first performance for reasons of length. Listeners today might very well enjoy attaching the scene to the end, now that both have been recorded. Indeed, both use the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and the Flemish Radio Choir, under the capable direction of Hervé Niquet. (One can consult online my rave review of the Herculanum recording [HERE] and an essay that I wrote [HERE] for the opera’s first modern staged production, which took place in 2016 at Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera.)

Symphony No. 3 is the first of David’s three symphonies to get recorded (nos. 1 and 2 remain unpublished). It sounds a lot like early Schubert: tuneful and propulsive. The numerous brief wind solos are beautifully turned. The scherzo, in the relative minor, gives the otherwise gentle work a welcome dose of sternness.

The overture to the comic opera La perle du Brésil [HERE] is a well-structured and mostly peppy piece using themes from the opera and fragmenting or elaborating upon them in intriguing ways. The slow introduction makes extensive use of what would quickly become the most famous aria from that work, “Charmant oiseau.” That aria, with flute obbligato, is the only piece by David that remained well-known throughout the 20th century, with recordings by coloratura sopranos ranging from Luisa Tetrazzini(1911) to Sumi Jo (1995). No doubt there are, thanks to the latter’s CD and her two widely viewed concert videos, a dozen young singers practicing “Charmant oiseau” right now in some corner of the world.

The seven songs on CD 3 seem carefully chosen not to repeat any of the 18 that the velvet-voiced baritone Tannis Christoyannis recorded on a disc similarly supported by the Center. (For my review, click HERE.) The enchanting tenor Cyrille Dubois, being a native speaker of French, can do his r’s in lightly guttural fashion, which helps him sound like someone speaking the poetic lines even while maintaining an unbroken melodic line. He and pianist Tristan Raës maintain flowing tempos that subtly respond to rhetorical shifts in the poems. In each of three songs—“Le ramier,” “Éoline,” and “L’Égyptienne”—Dubois adds a high note near the end, gorgeously but in a way that somehow never bursts the confines of the salon.

“Cri de charité” is more operatic, demanding stentorian sounds that Dubois magnificently provides. “Tristesse de l’odalisque” (text by Théophile Gautier) is quite simply one of the great French songs of the 19th century: Frits Noske, in his classic study French Song from Berlioz to Duparc calls it a “pearl” and its opening phrases “exquisite,” their “melodic line supported by an imaginary cello” (the pianist’s left hand).

“Le jour des morts” (text by Lamartine) is, according to Noske, “among the most remarkable French songs of the Romantic era,” beginning with three parallel strophes in the minor but then—in response to changing images in the text—moving to very different music, partly in the major, and finally returning to the minor and a mood of philosophical resignation. Dubois and Raës, clearly agreeing that the song is a remarkable achievement, give it their all. They end the group of six songs with a rabble-rousing number that was one of David’s most famous during his lifetime: “Le Rhin allemand.” This uses a poem by Alfred de Musset that responded to a notorious poem by German poet Nikolaus Becker that began: “They [the French] must not have it, the free, German Rhine[land].” Musset’s poem reminds Germans that the French army can be powerful, too: “Fear, lest your drinking songs awake the dead from their bloody slumber” to wreak revenge.

David Moore (in American Record Guide) found the First Piano Trio “lovely” in a period-instrument performance. Here, with modern instruments, its three movements, all well-constructed, come across just as vitally and, of course, with more carrying power, notably in a turbulent episode in the second movement. David Violi’s rapid figuration at the piano is delightful, especially in the light-as-air, Mendelssohnian finale, and cellist Pauline Buet plays out beautifully, or recedes to assist, as needed. The otherwise fine violinist, Pascal Monlong, is occasionally impure in intonation. The performance is more straightforward than the period-instrument one, which gave delightful attention to small-level articulation.

Of the six piano pieces heard here, three come from the remarkable set of 22 entitled Mélodies orientales that David composed during his two years in Turkey and Egypt as part of the aforementioned Saint-Simonian movement. The three are nos. 4-6 of the original set. “Fantasia harabi” (which might possibly be translated “Arab Horsemanship Contest”) and “Vieux Caire” (“Old Cairo”) are full of pseudo-Oriental color that is parallel in some ways to the ethnic idioms (respectively: Hungarian-Gypsy and Polish) that Liszt and Chopin were introducing into their own works around the same time. “Prière” is in the sweet chordal style of some Mendelssohn Songs without Words. The other three short works for piano here are pleasant and effective and, like almost everything on these three CDs, previously unrecorded: a nocturne (“Le soir”) and two waltzes (“Doux souvenir” and “Allegretto agitato”).

Jonas Vitaud performs all six piano pieces in a straightforward and rhythmically lucid manner. His readings of the three Oriental Melodies pieces thus offer an interesting alternative to the more interventionist, contrast-laden interpretations of Daniel Blumenthal. In Fantasia harabi, Vitaud aligns the ornaments with the downbeat. This seems at once historically probable for a piece from the early 1830s and, because of the resulting harsh “crunch,” programmatically appropriate for conveying a European view of the Middle East as “primitive.” (Blumenthal’s ornaments precede the beat, rendering them sentimental.)

The six motets, for mixed or men’s chorus, mostly with organ, were written when David, at 19 or 20, was singing in and sometimes conducting the cathedral choir in Aix. He may have spruced them up for their first publication, over 20 years later (1853). The choral textures are nicely varied, and there is, as almost always in David’s music, much melodic graciousness. Choral conductors today, not least in churches, may want to program one or more of these short (3-7 minute) works: “Angelis suis,” “Sub tuum,” “O salutaris,” “Pie Jesu,” “Omnes gentes,” and “Coeli enarrant.” The Flemish Radio Choir sings vibrantly and securely. The organist here improvises links between certain motets, making the six pieces an effective and continuous whole.

Throughout the 3-CD set, the sound quality is mostly clear and true. In the works with the Brussels Philharmonic (Jugement, Symphony, and Perle overture), the microphones often seem distant from the orchestra. As a result, I occasionally have trouble hearing harmonies in passages for pizzicato strings, and the percussion instruments (bass drum, cymbals, and triangle) feel disproportionately loud. One crucial passage in Jugement is so quiet that I have to crank up the volume, and then of course turn it down because much louder stuff is on the way.

The small hardbound book that comes with the 3 CDs contains wonderfully rich essays, source documents, and period illustrations (e.g., sheet-music title pages). It also reprints a short biography of David that I wrote for the aforementioned recording of David’s opera Herculanum. (I had nothing to do with the making of either recording.) The book offers the complete sung and spoken texts, English translations throughout generally excellent.

Ediciones Singulares ES 1028 [3 CDs] 235 minutes

Félicien David: Christophe Colomb, Le jugement dernier, Overture to La perle du Brésil, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major, motets, songs, piano pieces

Chantal Santon-Jeffery, soprano; Julien Behr, tenor; Josef Wagner, baritone; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Francois Saint-Yves, organ; Jonas Vitaud, piano; Duo Contraste (Cyrille Dubois, tenor; Tristan Raës, piano); and (in the Trio) Pascal Monlong, violin; Pauline Buet, cello, David Violi, piano

Les siècles (period-instrument orchestra and chorus), conducted by François-Xavier Roth (in Christophe Colomb only); Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and Flemish Radio Choir, conducted by Hervé Niquet

This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in American Record Guide and is adapted here with their permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The two books are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.


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