Hector Berlioz hailed Félicien David as a genius after the premiere of Le Désert in Paris in 1844, but history has not borne out that judgment. Remembered as a minor French Romantic and an early exponent of "Orientalism," David was one of the first European composers to take serious interest in the music of the Middle East, and regularly incorporate elements of it into his work. The "symphonic ode" Le Désert, scored for speaker, tenor, men's chorus, and orchestra, is not a genre that has flourished, and to modern ears the score seems like a strange mix of eccentricity and conventionality. For instance, the harmonically static opening is most likely the longest stretch of a single unaltered triad before Wagner used the same device, to considerably greater effect, in the Prelude to Das Rheingold. The use of a meuzzin's song, too, was a landmark for Western music, and there are many moments of melodic exoticism that foreshadow its prevalence later in the century. In many sections, though, the writing is pedestrian and unexceptional -- it sometimes sounds like very minor Gounod, but with less ingratiating melodies -- competent, entirely pleasant, but not very memorable. The quality of the live performance captured here is merely adequate; it sounds more like an amateur than professional effort, particularly in the orchestra's intonation and tone quality. Chor der St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale Berlin, however, turns in a solid and dramatic performance. The sound is mediocre, with a somewhat tinny quality. At the same time, the chorus and orchestra seem muffled and fuzzy, and there is a lot of coughing during the quiet sections.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|Le Désert, ode-symphony for speaker, tenor, chorus & orchestra|