This is in many ways an important (re)release. Félicien César David (1810-1876) was a rather central figure in his day, apparently the one who introduced the then-popular (and later thoroughly unpopular) exoticism into French romanticism. His music is flowingly romantic, sometimes reminiscent of Berlioz and Verdi, but also pointing forward to Massenet and Gounod - in fact, if I were to sum it up, `midway between Berlioz and Massenet' seems apt, even though he lacks Berlioz's striking originality and drama and doesn't quite anticipate Massenet's lush tunefulness.
Le Désert is a dramatic symphony, or `Ode Symphonie' for speaker, solo tenor, male chorus and orchestra, and was written in 1844 (which makes it rather modern-sounding for its date of composition). The program depicts the tribulations and travails of a caravan journeying through the desert, in the first part from the calm, chilly dawn in Sahara (where it appears from afar in the manner of Borodin's Steppes of Central Asia) through a storm and to the calmly noble resumption of the journey. The second part, depicting a night in the desert, is colorful and mostly reflective with some rather seductive orientalist atmosphere. The third part opens with music of the dawn and an effective chant du Muezzin before the caravan resumes its journey disappearing into the distance. It closes with a grand, Beethoven-like finale.
It is not a masterpiece, and the themes aren't really strikingly memorable, but it is a well-crafted work, finely scored, atmospheric and colorful enough to sustain interest throughout. Lazzaretti sings the tenor part with conviction and he is backed by fine choral singing and orchestral playing. It all adds up to a pretty strong case for this attractive work, and the recording is good. All in all, I am very glad to have heard this one, and it should certainly appeal to everyone who thinks the description `mixture of Berlioz and Massenet, perhaps some Lalo and Gounod thrown in' sounds attractive. Very welcome, if not an essential release.