Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
Le Désert (1844)
Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder (tenors)
Jean-Marie Winling (narrator)
Accentus; Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey
rec. Cité de la Musique, Paris, May 2014
NAÏVE V5405 [45:01 + 49:12]

Le Désert is an unusual hybrid work that I hadn’t come across before this disc came my way, but it’s well worth exploring (see also the review of the Capriccio recording). It’s officially an Ode-Symphonie, a mixed genre work in the same ballpark as Berlioz's dramatic symphony, Roméo et Juliette. Like that work, and many others of Berlioz, it’s testimony to the all-pervasive importance of dramatic works in French repertoire of the time and David was later to rise to the challenge of writing opera. Le Désert remained his most popular work, to the extent that he could never really escape from it. It consists of three scenes: a caravan approaching, a nocturnal halt and sunrise the following day. However, there is no sense of narrative or forward movement: instead the music encourages contemplation before three scenes, like pictures in a gallery. Nor are there any characters, just types that are brought to life by the chorus, singers and narrator. It’s evocation rather than depiction.

This set makes a very convincing case for it, and allows you to choose how you experience it: CD 2 gives you the version with narrator, CD 1 without, so you can choose how you wish to enjoy it. I would opt for the narrator version, however, at least the first time: you might as well get the full experience. The booklet includes the full text and translation, so you can follow it as closely as you like.

The long string notes of the opening conjure up the featureless landscape of the desert itself. Other instruments gradually come in and evoke the various sounds that drift across the silence. The work begins and ends with the vastness of the desert but David also shows a nice knack for rhythm in the opening chorus so that things never get dull or monotonous. You can even sense Berlioz, specifically the opening March of L'Enfance du Christ, in the perky approach of the caravan with its Arab-inflected sensibilities, or even Act 4 of Les Troyens in the night music of the second part. There is a lot of very direct nature painting, especially the sandstorm of the first part (track 3): it’s neither subtle nor ingenious, but you know squarely where you are.

The high tenor voice (very French) suits the heady mystery of the night scene very well. There then follows a very attractive Arab dance with suitably exotic sounding winds. Dawn is a great, prolonged crescendo, culminating in the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, which David daringly sets in a phonetic version of Arabic. You'd never mistake this French tenor for a genuine Muezzin but the effect is exciting, and I found the Orientalism of the call to worship very effective.

It’s interesting that the work gets the chamber orchestra and chamber choir treatment, and fitted it very well, to my ears. The chorus of the desert itself sounds strangely human, even a little vulnerable, rather than overwhelming. That’s totally appropriate for the contemplation of man's place in the vastness of his surroundings. Equilbey seems to shun vibrato and brings out the 19th century style of winds — in fact, it reminded me a bit of the sound of McCreesh's period Berlioz Requiem — so this pretty much sounds like a period performance and is none the worse for it. It also comes across as very French, not least in the intonation of the choir and the juicy intonation of the two tenors which nicely places the performance in a sort of unbroken line of continuation with its origin. It’s very fitting and very satisfying, and it’s well worth exploring, especially as you're unlikely to hear a live performance of it any time soon in the English-speaking lands. This disc makes about as persuasive a case for it as I could imagine.

Simon Thompson

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