L’enfance du Christ, Op.25
The Narrator / Centurion – Yann Beuron
Marie – Karen Cargill
Joseph – William Dazeley
Herod – Matthew Rose
Father / Polydorus – Peter Rose
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded on 2 & 3 December 2006 in the Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: August 2007
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0606
Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes
The largely – though not exclusively – gentle strains of Berlioz’s ‘petite Trilogie biblique’ are far removed from the monumental sounds we expect to hear in the composer’s concert settings of sacred texts in the “Grande messe des morts” and “Te Deum”. Instead, they sometimes recall – or, rather, anticipate, since they were written after “L’enfance du Christ” – Berlioz’s specifically liturgical music such as the “Veni Creator Spiritus” and “Tantum ergo sacramentum”, both for female voices, the latter with harmonium accompaniment and whose texture is directly pre-figured in the final ‘scene’ of Part One of “L’enfance du Christ” by the ‘invisible’ (i.e. off-stage) choir of angels with organ support.
“The Childhood of Christ” was one work that was received successfully during the composer’s lifetime, though ironically it was ‘launched’ in 1850 by its most famous section – ‘The Shepherd’s Farewell’ – under the pseudonym Pierre Ducré. Thereafter, the remainder of the trilogy was assembled in somewhat piecemeal fashion, finally performed complete under Berlioz’s direction in Paris in 1854.
This is Sir Colin Davis’s third commercial recording, though neither of his two previous accounts (1961 for Argo, 1976 for Philips) appears to be currently available. I cannot say that this new version supersedes its predecessors; as ever, one can admire the conductor’s commitment to, and affection for, the composer, but as with many recent Davis-led Berlioz performances – either live or as recorded – there is a certain quality which inhibits both flow and precision of instrumental attack.
Davis currently favours an approach to evoking orchestral sonority which does not encourage total unanimity of ensemble – the strings in the concluding scene of Part Two, for instance, (‘Le Repos de la Sainte Famille’) which should surely move more elegantly in line with the tempo marking of Allegretto grazioso. Moreover, this and other passages towards the conclusion have the distraction of what I take to be vocal contributions from the conductor.
I was impressed by some of the solo singing – Yann Beuron is particularly convincing, colouring the text and inflecting the line most expressively and appropriately. Matthew Rose and Peter Rose provide firm bass voices – the former especially so in the troubled Herod’s aria (with fine trombone contributions) and the latter as a warmly inviting Père de Famille. I didn’t find Karen Cargill’s somewhat tremulous delivery appealing. She often sounds flustered when a more relaxed approach would be ideal. William Dazeley sings well enough, if rather anonymously. The contribution of chamber choir Tenebrae is generally good, though the offstage passages are not really distant enough, nor are they ideally in tune and the organist does not always follow the registration indications given in the score.
As ever with the London Symphony Orchestra, one can admire the solo playing – the two flutes and harp in the trio are delightful – though the string tone as recorded sometimes sounds quite stodgy. The brief moments with full brass in Part One certainly raise the dramatic temperature, though the sound is inconsistent balance-wise, with some decidedly plummy (and close) timpani in ‘scene one’.
With various recordings currently unavailable, it is difficult to give an outright recommendation. I rather like the version from King’s College, Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury, not least for its distinctive choral timbres, though one which perhaps captures the Gallic spirit best – that on EMI under André Cluytens – would also appear to be deleted. Whatever reservations one might have, Davis’s reading is an undeniably sympathetic one – especially so towards the end – and, in this, he is supported wholeheartedly by his singers and players.