Prom 14 – L’enfance du Christ

L’enfance du Christ, Op.25

Mary – Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
Narrator – James Gilchrist (tenor)
Joseph – Gilles Cachemaille (baritone)
Herod / The Father – Jeremy White (bass)
Centurion – Kevin Kyle (tenor)
Polydorus – Michael Bundy (bass)

Monteverdi Choir
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 28 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Berlioz’s ’sacred trilogy’ is at once characteristic of its composer and yet untypical of him. Its restraint and comparative modesty of resources sets it apart from the monumental works for which he was pilloried during his lifetime, and yet his response to words and evocation of atmosphere are peculiarly his own. Starting life as a party joke in 1850, when Berlioz penned what became one of his best-known pieces – ’The Shepherds’ Farewell’ – it attained its final form some four years later, having been assembled in a somewhat piecemeal fashion during that period. Its success was in contrast to the widespread disdain in which Berlioz was held in France, but the largely restrained character of L’enfance du Christ must indeed have been a surprise to those contemporaries (critics chiefly) who associated its composer with more monumental creations.

John Eliot Gardiner led – perhaps predictably – an essentially clear-eyed view of this generally tender score. There was very little lingering or time for reflection. Indeed, he was inclined to press on, sometimes disregarding the frequent qualifications of ’un peu’ or ’un poco’ which pepper the score.

This lent the reading a sense of urgency which was certainly effective at key moments, such as the martial conclusion to the scene with Herod and the Soothsayers, where the brass sounded as if they had strayed in from a more imperious section of The Trojans, but elsewhere a sense of repose was absent, with some of the gentler passages for Mary and Joseph sounding rather agitated.

At the start, James Gilchrist was instantly impressive and communicative as the Narrator, with clear tone and impeccable French diction, although other portents were not so encouraging with less than precise ensemble and tuning from the woodwind. In fact, difficulties with intonation were a less than pleasant reminder that this was a performance on ’period instruments’. Whether because of some technical difficulties, the oboe and cor anglais were particularly unfortunate victims – their octaves in the uneasy ’Marche Nocturne’ were distinctly sour, as were some of the very exposed phrases in ’The Shepherds’ Farewell’. String tone was similarly acerbic at times – particularly at exposed entries – and this, coupled with some clipped phrasing, made for a less than warm orchestral sound which might, of course, have been Gardiner’s intention. Whether it was Berlioz’s, I am less sure. In terms of overall orchestral tone, there was precious little that was ’Romantique’.

The encounter between the two soldiers was effectively delivered by soloists from the choir and Jeremy White was characterful as Herod – rather more comfortable at the lower end of the register in this wide-ranging part and, overall, more successful as the Father in the concluding section. The choral singing, whether as soothsayers, shepherds or angels, was impressive in its attack and security of intonation. But it was very often much too loud, with Berlioz’s softer dynamics ignored. There was also some extremely mannered phrasing and exaggerated articulation.

The distant angels were effectively placed in the gallery – Berlioz would have loved the ’shock’ of their first entry – with a suitably wheezy-sounding harmonium, although whether this was the real thing or a contrivance of modern synthesised technology it was not possible to discern.

Bernarda Fink was appropriately maternal and expressive but one felt that, given more space by the conductor, her impact would have been more touching and poignant. Maybe Gilles Cachemaille was under the weather – his tone did not seem to be fully focussed and he did not convey much engagement, whether consoling his wife or desperately seeking refuge in Saïs where, incidentally, the timpani strokes depicting Joseph’s door knocking were distinctly feeble.

There is no doubt of Gardiner’s iron-like control over his forces. In this instance, the composer’s wishes were overlooked to the detriment of the music’s character, although, in spite of deficiencies, the work still cast its spell and the concluding passage, with tenor solo, chorus and distant voices interweaving, was magical in the space of the Royal Albert Hall. What a pity someone dropped something very loudly during the final, very quiet, ’Amen’.

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