Hector Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra

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Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, The Tate Collection

Sir Colin Davis conductor
Yann Beuron – The Narrator/Centurion
Karen Cargill – Marie
William Dazeley – Joseph
Matthew Rose – Herod
Peter Rose – Father/Polydorus
Tenebrae Choir, Director Nigel Short

James Mallinson producer
Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound Ltd sound engineers

Recorded December 2006, Barbican, London

Two SACD/CD compatible discs, download available from LSO Live site via iTunes or eMusic

Sir Colin has a long history with L’enfance du Christ. He made his first recording of it in 1960 at the age of 34. It was well-received in its time and is still respected today, but the current performance, part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s brilliantly successful series of live concert recordings made in the renovated and sonically improved Barbican Hall, is an absolute triumph.

In the moody opening night scene on the streets of Jerusalem, Berlioz’ sense of drama and atmosphere are at their keenest, and only as the entire work unfolds do we realize that it consists of three loosely connected parts, not written with the stage in mind. His love and understanding the ancient world which reached its richest expression in Les Troyens, strengthens his characterization of the weary Roman soldiers and the half-crazed client king, whom they so despise.  In the second part this fills out his portrayal of the people of Saïs and their arrogance as old Roman citizens. The early performances of L’enfance du Christ were unusual popular successes for Berlioz, and, although it is far from being his most performed work, its folk-like simplicity, free as it is from any sentimentality or mawkishness, has a strong appeal, as do the more complex passages, which evoke the Herod’s obsessions, the soothsayers exotic fanaticism, or the imagined character of ancient music.

In fact L’enfance du Christ began as something of a joke. Berlioz, bored at party one evening in 1850, dashed off a few staves in the album of his friend Duc, a rustic organ piece with an archaic flavor. This eventually became the touching chorus of shepherds bidding farewell to the infant Jesus, as his family take flight into Egypt. Berlioz included it, amplified by two other movements, in his next concert, passing it off as the lost work of “Ducré,” a forgotten seventeenth century master of the Sainte Chapelle, then undergoing its famous restoration. He characterized the style as being that “of the old illuminated missals.” After that he shelved the music and forgot about it until 1854, when he added first the third part of the sacred trilogy, The Arrival at Saïs, and finally the first part, The Dream of Herod.

Sir Colin’s ear for Berlioz’s balances and sonorities is, as always, impeccable. The LSO is totally responsive, and the quality of their playing is on the highest level throughout, whether they are playing complex orchestral sonorities as in the eerie scene in which the soothsayers make their prophecy or as soloists in the delicate trio for two flutes and harp. The soloists are without exception superb. Yann Beuron, as the only native French singer in the group, is well employed as the narrator, a role to which he adds particular tenderness and conviction. Matthew Rose is utterly compelling as the tortured, self-pitying Herod; and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and baritone William Dazeley encompass both the tenderness and the desperation in their parts. Peter Rose projects all the warmth and generosity of the Ishmaelite householder. One cannot imagine a more committed or attractively voiced group of soloists for this work, but the singing of the Tenebrae Choir is almost miraculous. Relatively small for this repertoire, with 14 female sopranos, 9 mixed altos, 8 tenors, and 9 basses, the choir encompasses the vast range of passagework, color, and nuance demanded by Berlioz and Sir Colin with astonishing precision and delicate expression. They sing with little vibrato, which makes their parts all the more exposed, a factor which makes their performance of the long, drawn-out lines of the mystical choir at the conclusion a technical marvel. It is none the less deeply moving for that. This extraordinary choir makes an equally impressive contribution to Sir Colin’s great Messiah, which I shall discuss in the near future.

This splendid recording does full justice to the mood and phrasing, as well as the harmonic and orchestral detail of this unusual work. I cannot recommend it more highly, but, writing in New England, I must add that Charles Munch’s performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra were always especially prized, and his 1956 commercial recording and a DVD of a 1966 television broadcast are currently available, although ArkivMusic  seems to be the only dependable source for the cd through their own reissue.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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