L’enfance du Christ

L’enfance du Christ, Op.25

Narrator & Centurion – Peter Wedd
Mary – Anna Stéphany
Joseph & Polydorus – Owen Gilhooly
Herod & Ishmaelite father – Jonathan Lemalu

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 December, 2006
Venue: St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London E1

The Spitalfields Winter Festival closed with this excellent account of Berlioz’s “L’enfance du Christ” in the conducive setting of St Leonard’s and its excellent acoustic, a performance also given a “big-screen live concert relay” to Crispin Place in Spitalfields Market and recorded for BBC Radio 3 broadcast.

The church may need a lick of paint, but this performance of Berlioz’s setting of his own text was judged to a nicety. At 95 minutes or so “L’enfance du Christ” is a work of significant length, especially so given that Berlioz had no plans to write it (rather it grew serendipitously) and has no extravagance to sustain it. This is Berlioz at his most economical in terms of forces required and in utterance, yet – like all great composers – the music could only be his, whether pastoral or archaic or straightforwardly narrating.

It’s a difficult score to bring off, especially as the three parts – here, rightly, given without an interval – are cut from similar cloth but with enough (subtle) differentiation to create different characters and suggest different situations. From the outset Peter Wedd was a plangent-voiced and expressive Narrator, and Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers ensured that Berlioz’s finely graded textures were given with assured and perceptive musical judgement and carried potency.

In telling the story of Jesus’s earliest days – his birth in the stable, the tortuous ‘flight into Egypt’, and final sanctuary – Berlioz takes something of an overview; this is not a dramatic setting but rather one that draws the listener in just enough to perceive the universality of the ‘story’. All the soloists were sufficiently ‘objective’ enough to not ‘act’ their roles; Anna Stéphany was radiant, however, and Jonathan Lemalu more successful as Herod tormented than evil, and he made a welcoming Ishmaelite father. Owen Gilhooly – replacing Darren Jeffery – was confident.

In music without any show – even the best-known section (‘The Shepherds’ Farewell’) is based on a simple if heartfelt melody – Berlioz’s one miscalculation may be the over-extended trio for two flutes and harp, which in context is an ‘entertainment’ from the Ishmaelites for their ‘rescued’ guests. This was, however, brought off with aplomb by Daniel Pailthorpe, Kathleen Stevenson and harpist Sioned Williams (presumably; Stephen Bryant was credited as leader, but it wasn’t him!), Sir Andrew not conducting this section except for a few gestures of encouragement when the musicians reached the will-o-the-wisp-like middle section (Berlioz looking back to “La Damnation de Faust”, maybe).

All in all, this was an often exquisitely-judged account of music easy to undervalue but which was revealed here to be an imaginative musical picture that, if the circumstances are right, has an aura all its own. Those circumstances – venue and performance – came together ideally here.

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