French composer Félicien David is a more or less forgotten
name today but this fine period-instrument recording by the
Cambini-Paris Quartet makes a good case for further exploration
of his corpus of works. One or two of David's operas survived
for a while in the French repertoire, but he was also more interested
in instrumental music than many of his contemporaries. Many
areas of his oeuvre lie almost entirely unexplored: his four
symphonies, numerous choral works and dozens of songs, for example.
Although the accompanying booklet does not specify, these appear
to be first recordings. By coincidence, David's Third Quartet
was recorded recently by the French Mosaïques Quartet,
released in 2011 with other chamber works by David on Laborie
Classique (LC12). A handful of other CDs of his music have appeared
over the last twenty years, beginning with an under-achieving
performance of his exotic and once-celebrated ode-symphony Le
Désert on Capriccio (C10379),
also reissued last year.
In his article on David for the New Grove Dictionary, musicologist
Hugh MacDonald writes rather snootily that "his music falls
into the French tradition of being agreeable diversion, strongly
coloured but emotionally naive". Presumably that judgement is
based primarily on a reading of scores - certainly not with
reference to the persuasive case made here by the Cambini Quartet.
Founded only in 2007, the Cambinis play with pleasing technical
facility, refinement, enthusiasm and insight, and above all
with a great sense of ensemble that places clarity and attractively
phrased communication at the focal point of their recital. Their
name reveals a predilection for the Classical period, and their
repertory consists not only of the obvious Mozart-to-Beethoven
axis, but of Giuseppe Cambini and other unjustly overlooked
composers like the French Hyacinthe Jadin, their sparkling recording
of whose quartets on Timpani in 2010 was very well received.
Though French, and with a lifelong interest in the Middle East,
where he travelled widely with some fellow Saint-Simonians,
David's String Quartets are very much in the Germanic tradition.
The title page of the Fourth Quartet bears the poignant legend,
"Last work of Félicien David". The composer knew he was
dying from tuberculosis and that this was his swansong; alas,
he only had enough time to complete the first movement. Like
his other Quartets it is a serious and rather conservative piece,
with an intensity in the final bars that approaches Beethoven.
The First and Second Quartets were written just a few years
earlier. Tightly constructed four-movement works of considerable
expressiveness, nostalgic lyricism and imagination, they recall
in the lighter, jauntier passages Haydn, as in the final two
movements of the F minor Quartet. In the darker episodes Beethoven
again sometimes looms, but more often Schubert - or more strictly
speaking, his contemporary and David's older compatriot George
Onslow, whose own thirty-six quartets of astonishing quality
similarly await re-discovery by modern audiences.
The First and Fourth Quartets are in minor keys, but a wistful,
valedictory mood is never far away in any of these works - due
no doubt to the fact that David was already close to sixty when
he wrote the First, and to death when he began the Fourth. Nevertheless,
there are numerous stretches of irresistible energy, humour,
elegance and luminescence. Such is the quality - and beauty
- of David's writing that it is easy to forget that this is
forgotten music by a neglected composer, rather than something
from the pages of accredited geniuses like Haydn, Schubert,
Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
The studio sound is very good, well-balanced. Some breathing
of the first violinist is unfortunately audible, but hardly
intrusive. The minimalist-look CD case is of the digipak type.
The booklet goes in a slot in the inside front cover, but not
one that will hold the page-laden booklet for long without tearing.
The French-English notes themselves are well written and substantial,
with two separate essays on David as well as a detailed analytic
description of each of the Quartets.
Really the only negative is the shortness of the CD - it is
tempting to think that the Third Quartet could have been squeezed
on too. But there is surely more to look forward to on Ambroisie-Naïve
from the Cambini Quartet and Félicien David.
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