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

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 AcadÈmie
Charles Cros, in the category “RedÈcouverte du rÈpertoire” (that is: for
rediscovering an important work from the past).

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

* * *

FÈlicien David (1810-76) was one of the most admired French composers of
his day. He was particularly known for his songs and for Le dÈsert.
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

A recording of his only
grand opera, Herculanum
(just released by Ediciones
Singulares) features major singers, including VÈronique 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
(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 FÈlicien David’s strong melodies,
imaginative instrumental writing, and often endearingly innocent tone are
helping to make his compositions welcome again.

Le dÈsert 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 dÈsert was hailed as
a masterpiece by Berlioz and other critics. Berlioz soon conducted Le
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: rÈcitant) as Stravinsky’s Oedipus
and Honegger’s Le roi David.

Le dÈsert 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
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 almÈes,”
presumably encourages the listener to imagine the supple movements of some
dancing women. (No females, by the way, sing in Le
: the chorus is
all-male.) The work’s third and final section begins with an orchestral evocation of a
; 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
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 “RÍverie du soir,”
and in the aforementioned “Fantasia arabe”) that he had transcribed while
living and traveling in the region.

Le dÈsert 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 EugËne 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 dÈsert 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 CitÈ 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

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 ‡ la nuit” and
“RÍverie 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

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 dÈsert 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 dÈsert without strophes dÈclamÈes, just
as orchestras generally perform Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the
without its original pedagogical chatter and sometimes even
offer Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf minus the storyteller.

The importance of Le dÈsert has been recognized by noted music
historians, including Richard Taruskin ( Oxford History of Western
, vol. 3, pp. 386-92) and Robert Laudon (in his path-breaking
book The Dramatic
, 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
J¸rgen Hˆflich
(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-aimÈ”—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
, 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 dÈsert,
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.

image_description=Felicien David: Le Desert (NaÔve V5405)
product_title=FÈlicien David: Le dÈsert, “ode-symphonie.”
product_by=Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Accentus [choral group], Orchestre de chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey.
product_id=NaÔve V5405 [2CDs]