L’Enfance du Christ, Op.25
Narrator – Nicholas Mulroy
Mary – Catherine Hopper
Centurion – Alexander Cadden
Joseph – Alex Ashworth
Herod – George Humphreys
Polydorus / householder – Jonathan Saunders
Choir of London and Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 24 January, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Although it is surely self-evident that by the time Berlioz came to compose Symphonie fantastique in 1830 at the age of 26 the originality of his genius was clear for all to hear, it is equally true that not every enthusiast for his music appreciates that influences which can be identified in the work are less than fully-absorbed. But by the time of his sacred trilogy “L’Enfance du Christ” (The Childhood of Christ), which was written in 1854, he was entirely his own man, producing in this work a unique masterpiece, free from any influence, and in turn providing much food for compositional thought for later composers – especially Saint-Saëns, whose “Oratorio de Noël” of 1863 is much indebted to “L’Enfance du Christ”, and even Fauré, whose “Requiem” of 1887 would surely not have been composed without the example of Berlioz’s masterpiece.
“L’Enfance du Christ” is one of the greatest works by a French composer from the 19th-century, showing a facet of Berlioz’s character which has tended to be overshadowed by his more powerfully dramatic works for the concert hall and the opera stage. But no matter which work of Berlioz one takes, there is at all times an underlying strong sense of drama, a feature that reinforces the inherent strength of the music. Thus, even in such a beautiful, and at times metaphysical, work as “L’Enfance du Christ”, the dramaturgy within the narrative takes on an almost operatic materialisation, which – as it was planned as a concert piece – together with the demands for up to seven solo singers in addition to the choir, makes performances of it extremely rare.
The opportunity of hearing this wonderful work under the direction of the greatest living Berlioz conductor was simply something not to miss, and the result totally justified the enterprise of the fully professional Choir of London and its Orchestra. On seeing an orchestral string strength of 6-6-4-4-2, one initially queried whether this number of players would be sufficient, but in the event it proved perfectly judged in this rich acoustic, the more so with a choir of 33 voices, from which body of singers the five male soloists were drawn, coming to the front of the platform for their solos and ensembles before rejoining the Choir.
The part of Mary can often pose problems for the soprano soloist; we have heard too ‘operatic’ a treatment of a role whose character in the drama approaches exhaustion, but in this instance Christine Hopper was excellent – wholly responsive to the nuances of the composer’s own text, and possessing a consistent beauty of tone that fitted the music admirably.
Her male partners were equally fine, yet to have the same singer (Jonathan Saunders) take the parts of the anti-Semitic Roman Polydarus and the kindly paterfamilias who takes pity on the Holy family may strike some as odd, although he was vocally first-rate. Nicholas Mulroy’s Narrator was very good indeed, as were Alexander Cadden (an imposing Centurion in voice and bearing), Alex Ashworth’s sensitive and moving Joseph, and the notably well characterised Herod of George Humphreys.
The French diction of the Choir of London was uniformly excellent throughout, and especially in ‘L’Adieu de bergers’ and the final unaccompanied chorus, the singing was also of a high standard; the orchestral playing was highly satisfactory. But this was Sir Colin’s performance, demonstrating the superb qualities that have made him the great conductor he is, inspiring the young musicians to excel themselves in a performance that neither they, nor their audience, will easily forget.