L’enfance du Christ

Berlioz
L’enfance du Christ, Op.25

Marie – Karen Cargill
Joseph – William Dazeley
The Narrator / Centurion – Yann Beuron
Herod – Matthew Rose
Polydorus – Peter Rose

Tenebrae

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 December, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Berlioz’s earlier works on a large scale – Symphonie fantastique and “The Damnation of Faust” – blazed with sonic exuberance, but repelled convention. They lost money. “L’Enfance du Christ” was a resounding success. It made a profit.

Enthusiasts commended Berlioz for having modified his style to accord with public taste. He retorted that he had simply responded to his subject matter, seeking “expression bent on reproducing the essence of its subject”. The ensuing music – surprisingly “naïve and gentle” – was, he insisted, no less passionate for being simple and tender.

In earlier decades, Sir Colin Davis presented Berlioz to the British public tirelessly. Due to his advocacy, the works gained enthusiasts. Performances of the larger works are still only occasional, however.

On the whole, I found this concert rather tame. By design, the playing was subdued. At the end of Part 1, about half-a-dozen brass-players got up and left the platform. What had they been doing, I wondered? Yes, their parts were scored – but the noise they had made was very genteel, designed to blend without controversy into the general blocks of sound.

In part, this blandness, commendably, was in service to the soloists. Each of the five was resoundingly audible. To this end, the orchestra had, perhaps, been held back. Yet much of Berlioz’s orchestration is more sparing during the solos. Some is even unaccompanied, most effectively and beautifully. Why didn’t the moments without the soloists shine?

I liked Karen Cargill and William Dazeley. They both sang smoothly, aware of the work’s liturgical inheritance. Dazeley’s French had an authentic lightness and intellectual ease. Matthew Rose and Peter Rose made rather less impact, partly through the general policy of ensuring that no melodrama (and hence drama?) attached to the menace of Herod and the power of his dream.

The splendour of the evening was Yann Beuron. He has a naturally strong, compelling voice – a ringing and rich soft-grained tenor – and the considerable advantage of being French. He made a most welcome substitute in place of the indisposed Ian Bostridge.

Tenebrae, the choir, founded by Nigel Short to combine the power of a full chorus with the precision of an intimate ensemble, was outstanding – managing to be both magisterial and yet mystical. In the closing moments of the work, Yann Beuron and Tenebrae sang unaccompanied, rapturously and enraptured – the highlight of the occasion.

May I cite a venerable recording from 1966 of “L’Enfance du Chris” conducted by André Cluytens and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. On that I hear passionate simplicity, the music rendered gentle and tender, vibrant and compelling, colourful and grand.

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