Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

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
(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: FÈlicien 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

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

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.

product_title=Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano
product_by=Tassis Christoyannis, baritone/Thanassis Apostolopoulos, piano
product_id=Aparté/Palazetto Bru Zane AP086—[CD]