The music of the French composer Félicien David is undergoing a mini-revival. This is due in good measure to Palazzetto Bru Zane, notably their wonderful 2015 recording of David’s most famous work, Le Désert (V5405). They also supported Tassis Christoyannis’s excellent survey of David’s Mélodies (AP086). This issue on Ediciones Singulares is their second recording; I have yet to hear the opera Herculanum (ES1020). Long may this support for David’s music continue.
This three CD set fills in a lot of gaps, and fills them well. After the success of Le Désert in 1844, David was heralded as a great composer, although Jules Combarieu would later describe him as a mere “satellite a heavenly body of the first magnitude”, suggesting that he was a mere acolyte of Berlioz. This opinion may have accounted for the later neglect of the composer. That is a shame, because the music presented here shows that David was very much his own man. Yes, there is an influence, but his music is distinct and in many ways his originality shines through.
The model of Christophe Colomb (1847) resembles that of Le Désert: an ode-symphonie for narrator soloists, chorus and orchestra. While it may not be as inspired as the earlier work, it is still an impressive composition. In the work, Columbus is portrayed as a great leader, one who could inspire his men to follow him into the unknown, even in the face of a revolt, as is seen in the third section. As with Le Désert, the piece combines operatic elements, such as arias and choruses, with spoken dialogue and orchestral passages, resulting in quite a dramatic work. The performance is excellent; I greatly enjoyed the singing of Josef Wagner, who has gravitas in the title role. The Flemish Radio Choir and Les Siècles under François-Xavier Roth sparkle.
The second disc opens with a spirited rendition of the overture from David’s opéra comique La perle du Brésil of 1851. This is followed by the highlight of this disc, Le Jugement dernier. It was originally planned as part of the final act of the opera Herculanum of 1859, but was eventually cut from the work. All I can say is that if this fourteen-minute choral masterpiece is anything to go by, then I am even more eager to buy the complete opera. The Symphony in E flat Major is not the best work here. It is something of a letdown after the other pieces. It lacks the intensity and fluid writing of the other pieces here. The disc concludes with Six Motets, which contain some very fine choral writing and are typically French in character. They are accompanied by the organ, expertly played by Francois Saint-Yves. The Flemish Radio Choir gives a first-rate performance again, with Hervé Niquet proving he is the master of both the chorus and the wonderful Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra.
The third disc offers the listener three genres of music usually forgotten is such sets, but here it completes, apart from opera, those areas in composition where David was active. Firstly, we are offered seven Mélodies. They complement perfectly those offered by the baritone Tassis Christoyannis on his Aparte disc. Duo Contraste’s tenor Cyrill Dubois brings a lightness of tone to some of these songs that made me think of Schubert. This is backed up by the excellent playing of Tristan Raës. There is real drama in these songs too. L'égyptienne could almost be linked to Le Désert with its references to the Middle East. Then follows the Piano Trio No. 1, a work that that—like Symphony No. 3—for me lacks a little imagination and inspiration. Schubert is once again drawn to mind. The performance by Pascal Monlong, Pauline Buet and David Violi is admirable. It is the work with its formality that lacks the spark of genius. The final offering is a selection of four of David’s short piano works. These are hardly indicative of his piano music, but they do give a further insight into his art.
As with all releases in this series, it is lavishly packaged in the form of a 133-page hardback book containing excellent essays on the composer and his music, as well as full texts and translations, French and English, of the sung texts. Particularly poignant is Saint-Saëns’s touching epitaph that begins “The tomb has barely closed on Félicien David, and music owes a tear to his memory”. This is a recording that should reinvigorate the composer and his music, and show it in a stronger light. This is an excellent introduction to a composer who is hardly a household name and who, on this evidence deserves better recognition. He was not just an acolyte of Berlioz but an important composer in his own right, as most of the music and documentation here clearly shows.
Disc 1 [78:49] Christophe Colomb
Chantal Santon (soprano), Julien Behr (tenor), Josef Wagner (baritone), Jean-Marie Winling (narrator), Flemish Radio Choir, Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth.
rec. L'Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles, France, 12-13 December 2014
Disc 2 [80:36] La perle du Brésil – Overture [11:03] Le Jugement dernier [13:59]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major [29:50]
Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, Flemish Radio Choir, Hervé Niquet.
rec. KVS, Brussels, Belgium, 17-22 June 2016
6 Motets religieux
i. Angelis suis [2:44]
ii. Sub tuum [3:13]
iii. O salutaris [5:01]
iv. Pie Jesu [3:10]
v. Omnes gentes [4:07]
vi. Coeli enarrant [7:22]
Flemish Radio Choir, Francois Saint-Yves (organ), Hervé Niquet.
rec. Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice, Italy, 11 April 2016
Disc 3 [75:10]
7 Mélodies Le ramier [4:43] Eoline [4:55] Cri de charité [5:49] Tristesse de l'odalisque [3:42] L'égyptienne [4:09] Le jour des morts [9:43] Le Rhin allemande [3:39]
Duo Contraste (Cyrill Dubois, tenor; Tristan Raës, piano)
rec. Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice, Italy, 11 April 2016
Piano Trio No. 1 in E-Flat Major [25:05]
Pascal Monlong (violin), Pauline Buet (cello), David Violi (piano)
rec. Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice, Italy, 22-23 November 2015
Piano Works Reverie [2:45] Les Brises d’Orient [5:41] Doux Souvenir [1:43] Allegretto agitato [3:01]
Jonas Vitaud (piano)
rec. Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice, Italy, 30th October 2015