Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
String Quartet no.1 in F minor (1868) [25:25]
String Quartet no.2 in A (c.1869) [23:30]
Allegro ma non troppo (unfinished String Quartet no.4 in E minor) (1876) [7:17]
Cambini-Paris Quartet (Julien Chauvin (violin); Karine Crocquenoy (violin); Pierre-Eric Nimylowycz (viola); Atsushi Sakaï (cello))
rec. Atelier Cortambert, Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris, September 2010. DDD.
AMBROISIE AM 206 [56:18] 

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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Really the only negative is the shortness of this CD.