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Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
Le Désert [94:13]
Cyrille Dubois, Zachary Wilder (tenors), Jean-Marie Winling (reciter)
Accentus, Orchestre de chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey
rec. 2014, Cité de la musique, Paris
NAIVE V5405 [45.01 + 49.12]

Félicien David was one of those composers who produces one work, hailed in his lifetime as a masterpiece, and by which all his other compositions are judged and seen to be wanting; and thus, typically, are overlooked. David’s masterpiece was Le Désert (review). The work - for orchestra, chorus, narrator and tenor soloists – arose from David’s own experiences of the desert. He spent four years in his twenties exploring countries in the East, and returned full of oriental melodies which he wanted to bring before France and the West, starting out by writing Mélodies orientales for piano. Le Désert was composed in 1844, and the tunes found therein were all inspired by original melodies he had encountered in the East. The work was well received by the public, critics and fellow musicians – including Berlioz.

Albeit that the tunes themselves are based on the genuine articles, a first hearing reveals that the work itself is full of musical clichés, such as the augmented second to evoke the East, while very typical devices are employed to depict a storm, with tremolando strings, rapidly descending chromatic lines, scalic acciaccatura and diminished seventh chords in abundance. We find very four-square phrases, and an awful lot of melodic and rhythmic repetitions and exhaustive use of ideas and material. That said, if one is able to turning off the critical faculties and desist from analysing the music, the work imparts a good flavour of the East, and I found it enjoyable to listen to in this way.

Conductor Laurence Equilbey does her best to give us a convincing performance, although the ensemble of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris isn’t particularly fabulous, and the chamber choir Accentus sound very lugubrious – even when singing hymns of joy and praise to Allah.

The set comprises two discs – disc one simply contains the music while the second disc contains exactly the same music, but with narration. My instinctive supposition on discovering this was that the narration was lengthy, and that the reason for disc one was to spare non-French speakers extensive and irritating interruptions in a language they didn’t speak. The recitation actually only adds four minutes on to the length of the disc – which wouldn’t, to my mind, seem to justify the expense of a second disc.

The presentation of the booklet is good with the cover reproduction of an entirely appropriate and attractive painting by Jean Baptiste Lazerges (Caravane près du Biskra), and the notes are also very informative and well-presented. Words are provided, and my only gripe with the booklet is the lack of capital letters in the title pages and track-listing. Trendy, I suppose; I just found it irritating.

On the whole, this makes for pleasant listening, but beware the lack of musical depth and inspiration – if you like the sound-track to Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll probably like this; if, on the hand, you can’t listen to a piece of music without analysis and find unnecessary repetitions irritating, this is probably a work to avoid.

Em Marshall-Luck

Previous review: Simon Thompson

Track listing
L’entrée au désert [8.31]
Marche de la caravane [4.25]
La tempête au désert [3.47]
Hymne à la nuit [6.58]
Fantasie Arabe – danse des almées [3.41]
La liberté au désert [1.38]
La rêverie du soir [3.32]
Le lever du soleil [2.39]
Chant du muezzin [2.39]
Le départ de la caravane [2.53]
Chant du désert [4.17])



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