David: Le désert

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Le désert
PERFORMER: Cyrille Dubois, Zachary Wilder (tenor), Jean-Marie Winling (narrator); Accentus; Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey


Not only was David’s ode-symphonie Le désert the great Paris hit of 1844, but it’s gone down in history as the start of the cult of the exotic in French 19th-century music. Berlioz wrote to his sister, pardoning her for being moved by this music (joke?), but saying David was a ‘bon garçon’, even if no great conversationalist. Not that he needed to be: his music did the talking for him, and eventually he succeeded to Berlioz’s chair in the Institut.

Subtle this work is not. David takes what were to be among the distinguishing features of the ‘exotic’ – repetition of patterns, held bass notes, pseudo-Arabic melismas on solo oboe, invocations to night, life stirring at dawn – and delivers them on a plate, with little or nothing in the way of garnish or distraction. His tunes are of the almost-good variety, and clearly he’d been listening to Berlioz’s music, as the occasional emotive key change and splendid chromatic sandstorm tell us. The ‘Call of the Muezzin’ is another high point in this excellent performance, Zachary Wilder soaring up to top Bs which in 1844 no doubt set the ladies in the audience all of a-flutter. Good fun all round.


Roger Nichols