Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ – Mark Elder conducts Britten Sinfonia in Queen Elizabeth Hall

L’Enfance du Christ, Op.25

Narrator & Centurion – Allan Clayton
Mary – Sarah Connolly
Joseph & Polydorus – Roderick Williams
Herod & Ishmaelite father – Neal Davies

Britten Sinfonia Voices

Britten Sinfonia
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 December, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/Arenapal“Art in France is dead: so I must go where it is still to be found. In England apparently there has been a real revolution in the musical consciousness of the nation in the last ten years.” So wrote Hector Berlioz, despondent at the rejection of The Damnation of Faust which had been premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1846 but dropped after two performances. He was to spend much of the next twenty years abroad, mainly in Germany and England. How gratified one suspects Berlioz would have been by this performance of L’Enfance du Christ from an exceptional British quartet of soloists and an English conductor. The evening also marked the debut for the 40-strong Britten Sinfonia Voices, a professional choir of quite outstanding quality. Its Director, Eamonn Dougan, deserves equal billing. This was singing of the very highest standard. The final “Amen” – decrescendo and perfectly balanced – was a thing of wonder as though a veil were being gently drawn.

Allan Clayton. Photograph: Jack LiebeckDespite the affection in which it is held, L’Enfance du Christ is hardly over-performed and is another of those curious Berlioz hybrids. It came into existence piecemeal. ‘The Shepherd’s Farewell’ was initially presented under the pseudonym of Pierre Ducré, delighting the critics who had previously mauled Berlioz’s music, and subsequently expanded by the addition of ‘The Flight into Egypt’ and ‘Holy Family at Rest’. Intuitively one feels that the scheme, basically a series of tableaux, is too contrived and should not work dramatically. However, if the right balance between sentiment and sentimentality is found – it was perfectly caught on this occasion – it can be deeply affecting.

Seldom does one hear a vocal quartet with no weak link. The Narrator bookends the work, opening ‘Herod’s Dream’ by setting the scene and later laying the ‘Epilogue’ to rest together with the chorus. Allan Clayton, free ringing notes at the top of the range and consistently sensitive, was absolutely spellbinding. Equally impressive was the dramatically sung and imposing Herod of Neal Davies. As Mary and Joseph, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams respectively had, perhaps, a harder task if they were not to sound saccharine, but this duo unerringly found just the right tone – sincere, dramatic where necessary, but avoiding the overtly operatic.

Sir Mark Elder, inheritor of the Hallé’s Berlioz tradition (the Hallé gave the first English performance of L’enfance and, under Hamilton Harty and Barbirolli, nurtured the English Berlioz tradition) consistently found each scene’s inherent drama – whether in the shadowy nocturnal marches which frame the scene at Herod’s Palace, the archaic sounding ‘Overture to the Flight into Egypt’ or the vituperative choral rejection of the Holy Family. The Britten Sinfonia’s playing was of outstanding quality, the oboe and cor anglais (Aisling Casey and Emma Fielding respectively) consistently mesmerising, and there was the most beguiling account of the ‘Trio’ for two flutes and harp, which can seem overlong.

  • Further performances: Friday 9 December at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge; Saturday 10 December at Concert Hall, Brighton Dome
  • Britten Sinfonia

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