DAVID Portraits Vol 4
Félicien David’s music has edged its way back to the fringes of the repertory of late, and Palazzetto Bru Zane’s marvellous survey of his output effectively complements recent recordings of his 1844 ‘ode-symphonie’ Le désert (Naïve, 6/15), immensely popular in its day, and the operas Lalla Roukh (Naxos, 6/14) and Herculanum (also Ediciones Singulares, 10/15). Shortly after David’s death in 1876, Saint-Saëns noted that his ‘manner is highly individual, and disconcerts the critic by its irregularities’, an apt description of a composer who can be attractive and perplexing by turns.
David was a Saint-Simonian, a member of a sect, much frowned upon in official circles, that combined utopian socialist ideals with a quasi-ecclesiastical organisation dependent upon charismatic leadership cults. Its doctrines loom large over Christophe Colomb, first performed in 1847, and, like Le désert, an ode-symphonie, an amalgam of spoken narration with vocal, choral and operatic scenes, a form David derived, in part, from Berlioz’s Lélio. It envisions Columbus as an inspirational leader guiding his followers across the Atlantic to create a new society in a new world. Arias and ensembles alternate with choruses of emotive, almost propagandistic simplicity, some of which re‑use hymns written for the Saint-Simonian commune at Ménilmontant, where David lived between 1831 and 1833. The divertissement for the ‘sauvages’, encountered in the New World in the final scene, seems suspect nowadays, though its exotic style was much admired and imitated in the 19th century.
The extraordinary Le jugement dernier, meanwhile, was originally planned as the final scene of Herculanum but jettisoned as unperformable before the opera’s premiere. It’s the most overtly Berliozian of David’s scores, alluding to both the final movement of the Symphonie fantastique and the ‘Hostias’ from the Requiem, before the chorus is divided into Elect and Damned, confronting each other in delirious counterpoint. There are some beautiful early motets and his songs are wonderfully direct in expression. The Third Symphony and First Piano Trio, however, betray an unease with absolute forms. Sonata movements repeat rather than develop. The Symphony has a haunting Adagio but completes its emotional trajectory too soon with the hard-hitting Scherzo. The finale feels oddly extraneous as a result.
The performances are fabulous. François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles mine the textures and sonorities of Christophe Colomb for all their worth. Josef Wagner sounds suitably authoritative in the fearsomely taxing title-role, while Chantal Santon-Jeffrey and Julien Behr are touching as Fernand and Elvire, the lovers irrevocably parted by Columbus’s voyage. Hervé Niquet and the Brussels Philharmonic take over for the orchestral works and Le jugement dernier. The latter is edge-of-your-seat stuff, with the Flemish Radio Choir thrilling at full throttle. Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës – the so-called Duo Contraste – tackle the songs with great commitment and stylish ease, and Jonas Vitaud brings the set to a close with some slight if exquisite piano pieces, written for performance in Parisian salons. It’s a fascinating and outstanding achievement: highly recommended.