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François-André Danican PHILIDOR (1726-1795)
Simphonie No.27 in G major (Ouverture: Le maréchal ferrant, 1761) [12:44]
Carmen Sæculare (1788): (Ouverture [4:31]; Prologus: Odi profanum vulgus [1:18]; Prima Pars [5:18]; Seconda Pars [18:04]; Tertia Pars [12:47])
Carmen Sæculare (contd.)
Pars Quarta [38:25]
Le sorcier: Ouverture in G major (1764) [8:54]
Tom Jones: Ouverture in B flat major (1765) [7:58]
Veronica Cangemi (soprano), Nora Gubisch (mezzo), Donald Litaker (tenor), Antonio Abete (bass)
Coro della Radio Svizzera
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Jean-Claude Malgoire (Carmen Sæculare)
Prague Chamber Orchestra/Christian Benda (Simphonie, overtures)
rec. Studio Domovina, Prague, 19 April 2005 and Auditorio della RSI, Lugano, Switzerland, 21-22 January 1998 (Carmen Sæculare).
NAXOS 8.557593-94 [54:42 + 55:16]


François-André Danican Philidor started his musical career as a boy chorister in the Chapelle Royal at Versailles. Taught by Campra, his first motet was performed there in 1738. At the same time as he was building his career in music, Philidor acquired considerable ability as a chess player, and in the 1740s he could regularly be found playing opponents such as Voltaire and Rousseau in the Café de la Régence.

After travels in Europe and England, Philidor returned to France in 1754. Theatre was the court fashion of the time, and the composer ensured considerable success with works such as the comic opera Le maréchal ferrant (The Blacksmith), the overture for which is in the Italianate form of a three movement Sinfonia. These overtures, which also include Le sorcier, and Tom Jones, which was of course based on Fielding’s famous novel, are typically fresh and lively, setting the scene of the drama to follow and introducing some of the musical themes in the opera. Listeners wondering how to classify Philidor’s style should think very much in terms of Mozartean or Haydnesque high classical, with all traces of twiddly French baroque ornamentation having long ago gone by the wayside. Collectors wondering about the conductor Christian Benda might also be interested to know that he is indeed descended from the Czech Benda dynasty of the 18th century. 

The main work on this double CD is Philidor’s Carmen Sæculare. This is an oratorio, setting poems by Horace, some of which are associated with the Roman centennial celebrations of 17 B.C. Philidor was by 1788 once again in England, and the work came about on the instigation of an Italian scholar called Giuseppe Baretti, a well known intellectual figure in London. By all accounts a colourful figure in his own right, Baretti had once been charged with murder after stabbing a man in self defence in the Haymarket. He was acquitted, with no less than Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke and David Garrick appearing as character witnesses. Baretti chose the Latin texts for the Carmen Sæculare, and sought a man ‘fertile in ideas and expedients and able to temper alternately the solemnity of Church-music with the brilliancy of the theatrical’.

Philidor succeeded admirably in this task, and the piece is full of gorgeous moments. There are of course hints at what went before in the mighty oratorio tradition of Handel, and with a little imagination one can sense the immenence of Haydn’s The Creation. Philidor never quite gives us a blockbuster number which would have us on our feet, but considering the complexity of the texts this might be less of a surprise. Fortunately for us, Keith Anderson’s comprehensive booklet notes allow us to follow the content by track number, while the full texts are available on the Naxos website. The first parts invocate Apollo, and deal with various aspects of Achilles and the Trojan war, the foundation of Rome, praise for Diana and prayers that the plague should be averted from Caesar and his people, descending instead on the Persians and Britons. 

The fourth part deals with the Carmen Sæculare proper, with Sapphic stanzas which include further prayers to the gods, and recollections of their interaction with mortals such as Aeneas. Philidor’s music is suitably responsive to the texts, and at times descriptive, with the rising of Apollo as the god of the sun clearly depicted. 

Recording and performance are generally excellent in all of the works on these discs, and while the orchestra is a little more distant in the Carmen Sæculare when compared to the overtures this is only to be expected. The balance with soloists and choir is very good indeed, the former being not too forward, the latter being well rounded and articulating the latin texts with aplomb. This is not music which will shake your world to its foundations, but if the fascinating sensitivities of pre-French-revolutionary artistic and intellectual life attract then this is an artefact which will bring great pleasure.

Dominy Clements




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