Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ – François-Xavier Roth conducts BBC Symphony Orchestra in Barbican Hall with Karen Cargill, Yann Beuron, Marcus Farnsworth & Christopher Purves

L’Enfance du Christ, Op.25

Mary – Karen Cargill
Narrator / Centurion – Yann Beuron
Joseph / Polydorous – Marcus Farnsworth
Herod / Father – Christopher Purves

BBC Symphony Chorus
Trinity Laban Chamber Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 December, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

François-Xavier Roth. Photograph: www.francoisxavierroth.comL’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) is a somewhat odd piece amongst Berlioz’s large-scale pieces. It is the antithesis of the extravagance that we associate with him. He tells ‘The Christmas Story’ in an intimate and sacred way, yet without incense. The music, human and imaginative, the composer attracted by the mystery of this narrative, is open to all denominations. The score contains springy rhythms, wonderful melodies and delectable colours, all brought out in this performance under the inspiring François-Xavier Roth, who energised the few bits of drama to life and cosseted the slower numbers without making them mawkish. But Berlioz is still Berlioz in his use of the orchestra, and Roth ensured a vivid realisation of what’s on the page, the BBC Symphony Orchestra as sensitive and as vibrant as required.

The three parts – ‘Herod’s Dream’, The Flight into Egypt’, ‘The Arrival at Saïs’ – here wisely given without an interval, held the attention as music, as a particular performance, and in moving the sensibilities, not least in its tender and pastoral qualities, Berlioz’s gentle affection for his subject touching the heart and moving the soul, not least in ‘The Shepherds’ Farewell’ (Part 2), which might have seemed slightly – just a hair’s-breadth – pushed along … until Roth introduced a devastating pianissimo for the final verse.

In music that has elements of Baroque, Classical and Romantic – possibly as a result of Berlioz’s piecemeal writing of it – these performers preserved the composer’s disarming creation, retaining its innocence yet sustaining a craving to be enlightened. If the trio-sonata for two flutes and harp in Part 3 seems too much a diversion, charming though it is, it was most beautifully delivered here by Kathleen Stevenson, Daniel Pailthorpe and Sioned Williams. The solo singing was uniformly excellent, not least in each soloist’s savouring and colouring of words, and the choral contribution matched it, with the angels’ antiphons (Trinity Laban) nicely judged in terms of distance. In short, this was a devoted performance, devotedly listened to, and often rather special.

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