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Alan Swanson
Fanfare, November 2009

Félicien César David (1810–1876) is not a name one often comes across on concert programs or recordings, but in his day he was well enough known to rate an obituary in the New York Times. There are a couple of recordings of Henri Vieuxtemps’s arrangement for viola and piano of the “Hymn to the night” from the second part of this “Ode-symphonie,” a few songs, mostly on a disc of forgotten Mediterranean music, and that’s about it. Though he has a long list of songs and choruses, other symphonic work, and some chamber music as well, he may be best known for his fourth, and most successful, of seven stage pieces, Lalla-Roukh (1862), whose story by Thomas Moore was popular with many composers of the period.

David was not the only one in his day besotted by Oriental exoticism. It was all the rage from the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt on. David traveled to the Middle East in the early 1830s, and was permanently smitten. Le désert is perhaps the best of his many responses to Middle-Eastern culture. Apart from its exotic moments—the muezzin’s call in the third part is often claimed to be the first Muslim music heard in Western Europe, despite not being particularly Islamic—its ability to suggest the vast spaces of the desert and to give one sense of its peoples made it a powerful contribution to the increasingly popular genre of the orchestral tone poem before the term arrived. It’s not difficult to see why Berlioz proclaimed him a new great composer after its premiere in 1844.

David’s chief gift was his ability to exploit orchestral color, and we hear that at once in the first section, a fine evocation of the desert, using broad ostinato orchestral basses to suggest the vast silence, over which come various colorful moments, such as the arrival of a caravan. The second movement depicts the desert at night, a much more lively time of day. The third movement portrays morning and the passing of the caravan. Though it shouldn’t, it may surprise some to hear God addressed by the chorus in this piece as Allah.

The orchestra in this 1989 recording plays very well indeed, and Guida knows what this piece needs to make it work…this piece has a lot going for it and, despite a certain resemblance of the third movement to the first, I think this would be a good work to restore to the choral-orchestral repertoire. The booklet has Auguste Colin’s original French text and a German translation only.



Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, August 2009

David did not see the twentieth century, dying in 1876 at the age of 66. His music on this evidence—the only I have heard—is smoothly romantic. It is at times rather like ceremonial grand Berlioz or Verdi’s Aida…After tribulations and tempest the Saharan caravan returns at the end of part 3 to the placid resumption of the journey. There’s a touch of stormy upheaval in La tempête au désert. The second part is in six episodes which are calming and only in La Fantaisie Arabe and the La danse des almées is their a hint of exotic colour in the form of jingling janissary music and a measure of seduction. The influence of Berlioz is undeniable in the La liberté du désert. Le chant du Muezzin stands in a hybrid land between the authentic ululation of the call to prayer and French opera of the grand siècle of Meyerbeer and his lavish contemporaries. All in all it’s not very exotic but it is interesting. The work ends in a grand Beethovenian unison with the orchestra. I wonder what else of Félicien David has survived?

Lazzaretti’s oration is delivered in resoundingly convincing idiomatic French. He acts the text and varies his voice to match. Félicien David is well served here and the disc forms a timely reminder that musical France in the nineteenth century was a far more diverse place than we might expect from the few works recorded and the even fewer actually played.

The little essay is given in German, English and French but the sung and spoken text is in French and German only.






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2:51:15 PM, 30 March 2015
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