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Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
A Portrait
rec. 2014/16, Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles,
KVS (Bruxelles), Palazzetto Bru Zane (Venise), Jezuïetenkerk (Heverlee)
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1028 [3 CDs: 234:35 + book]

Félicien David was born in 1810 in Cadenet, south-eastern France. He was left orphaned when he was only six by the death of his father. He studied as a choirboy at the Church of Saint-Sauveur, Aix-en Provence and, at the age of fifteen, a scholarship enabled him to study literature with the Jesuits. Three years later he embarked on a musical career, and in 1830 enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. He later became a fully paid-up member of the Saint-Simonian movement, a French political and social movement of the first half of the 19th century, inspired by the ideas of Claude Henri de Rouvroy. Music held a special place within the movement, and David composed for them, mainly hymns. In 1832 they were suppressed, and the composer, together with some others, travelled to Turkey and Egypt, where he absorbed these new cultures. They provided a source of inspiration for his later work. He returned to Paris in 1833. He composed Le Désert (1844), undoubtedly his masterpiece, incorporating some of these exotic influences. It is an ‘ode-symphonie’, a poetic choral song cycle. Cristophe Colomb, which came three years later, also fits into this genre. In 1862 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, and died in Le Pecq, outside Paris, in 1876.

For those coming fresh to David’ s music, this valuable set explores several diverse genres of his output. In addition to the symphonic ode Christophe Colombe, we have a symphony, orchestral music, a piano trio, several vocal items in the form of motets and melodies, and some piano works. All in all, this constitutes a fascinating cross-section.

Christophe Colombe is the most substantial work here.  The ‘ode-symphonie’ was Félicien David’ s creation, a fusion of oratorio and melodrama, with soloists and a speaker. David divides the work into four tableaux: ‘Le départ’ (Departure), ‘Une nuit sur l’océan’ (A Night on the Ocean), ‘La Révolte’ (The Rebellion) and ‘Le Nouveau-Monde’ (The New World). At its heart it portrays Christopher Columbus’ epic voyage of discovery to the New World. Jean-Marie Winling (the speaker) is superb, offering a dramatic and poetically infused narration throughout. The three soloists are excellent in every way, as are Les Siècles and the Flemish Radio Choir, under the inspirational direction of François-Xavier Roth, who delivers a performance rich in musical insights.

The genial disposition of the opening movement of the Third Symphony, with its Mendelssohnian overlay, is guaranteed to lift the spirits. The second subject has an almost Gaelic lilt. Despite its relative neglect, it has at least reached publication, an honour not afforded to David's first two symphonies. If you are inclined towards Onslow and Méhul, you’ll find much to appreciate here. The slow movement is melodically rich and has a refined elegance. A buoyant Scherzo is ushered in, unusually, by some heavy Adagio chords. The finale is an absolute delight’ its jaunty rhythms cannot fail to raise the spirits. Hervé Niquet and the Brussels Philharmonic make a compelling case for this captivating score.

The overture to La Perle Du Brésil is a lively curtain-raiser and really should be played more often, since it would grace many an orchestral programme. I can’t understand its neglect. Le Jugement Dernier, we are informed in the book, “is the apotheosis of the opera Herculanum (1859)” (review). Apparently, it proved so demanding that it was cut before the opera’s first performance. It has remained unpublished until now. The music is glorious, with grand sweeping gestures. Once again, the Brussels Philharmonic, together with the Flemish Radio Choir under Hervé Niquet, do it proud.

The Piano Trio in B flat, published in 1857, is the first of three. In three movements, David’s melodic gifts are in evidence. The middle movement, marked Molto adagio, is particularly attractive and has a certain poignancy. The last movement is jocular and upbeat. It’s noticeable throughout, though, that the piano is generally consigned to an accompanying role.

The Six Motets were composed 1829-30 at the Church of Saint-Sauveur, Aix-en Provence, where David had spent his young years as a choirboy. Each is written for a different configuration of singers - some for male singers, others for female and some for mixed choir. All have organ accompaniment, except the O salutaris, which is sung a cappella. I have mixed feelings about them, and enjoyed them least of the music featured in this set. I suppose I found them a little four-square and lacking the inspirational spark of the other music.

The Duo Contraste (Cyrille Dubois, tenor – and Tristan Raës, piano) give stylish and idiomatic renditions of a group of seven melodies. The songs are enchanting and suffused with beguiling lyricism. Dubois’ voice suits them to perfection. The added bonus is being able to follow the songs with the texts. Jonas Vitaud offers a set of six short piano pieces. Attractive in their own way, they were written with the salon very much in mind.

The three CDs are housed in a 133 page hardback book, a format favoured by Ediciones Singulares. Scholarly articles relating to the composer and his music are provided in French and English. Full texts and translations of the vocal items are provided. An array of interesting black and white photographs is scattered throughout the text. The detail is imporessive; even full personnel listings of the participating ensembles are included. All the performances have been well-recorded. This provides an ideal introduction for newcomers. For all concerned in its production, this has truly been a labour of love.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe
Complete contents:
CD 1 [78:49]
Christophe Colomb 
Chantal Santon-Jeffery (soprano)
Julien Behr (tenor)
Josef Wagner (baritone)
Jean-Marie Winling (speaker)
Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

CD 2 [80:36]
La Perle du Brésil (overture) [11:03]
Le Jugement dernier [13:59]
Symphonie No. 3 [29:50]
Brussels Philharmonic / Hervé Niquet
Six Motets [25:37]
François Saint-Yves (organ)
Flemish Radio Choir / Hervé Niquet

CD 3 [75:10]
Sept Mélodies [36:40]
Duo Contraste - Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Tristan Raës (piano)
Trio avec piano No. 1 [25:05]
Pascal Monlong (violin)
Pauline Buet (cello)
David Violi (piano)
Musique pour piano [13:11]
Jonas Vitaud (piano)



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