Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ - Davis
LSO Live LSO0606 (2 discs)
Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ
Yann Beuron (Narrator)
Karen Cargill (Virgin Mary)
William Dazeley (Joseph)
Matthew Rose (Herod)
Peter Rose (Father of the family)
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis (conductor)
Described as a ‘sacred trilogy’, Berlioz’s oratorio L’enfance du Christ began as a short piece called Shepherds’ Farewell. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus and the journey of the Holy Family as they escape Bethlehem and head across Egypt to the city of Saïs. Unlike many of the composer’s more flamboyant works, it is an exquisite and gentle composition scored for relatively small forces.
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Recorded live on 2 and on 3 December 2006 at the Barbican Hall, London, United Kingdom, DSD64
Recording producer: James Mallinson
Balance engineers: Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson (Classic Sound Ltd)
Editors: Ian Watson and Jenni Whiteside (Classic Sound Ltd)
Recording system: Merging Technologies Pyramix
Review by John Miller - November 11, 2007
According to Berlioz' Memoirs, he had an almost transcendental experience at his First Communion. This instilled a highly emotional religiosity for the rest of his life. In 1850 he began the convoluted process of writing his little Oratorio picturing the early life of Christ and the Holy Family. Berlioz expert David Cairns nicely details this creative process in his essay for the LSO Live booklet. Ironically, the music originated in a tiny organ piece which Berlioz wrote in a guest Album of a friend, when asked to contribute to its pages after a highly secular game of cards! This organ piece later became the famous chorus 'Shepherd's Farewell' in the oratorio.
The public adored the gentle, sweet L'enfance du Christ from its first performance, galling Berlioz who never had their approval for this other, deeply radical works which he saw as his true direction.
The music of L'Enfance is naive, scored for a reduced orchestra (but including two cornets), mainly slow and rarely rises above forte. In order to avoid cloying sentimentality, it requires commitment from all its performers, and direction which has a sure sense of its tableaux-like structure. Sir Colin Davis, of course, is an outstanding Berliozian, and he has assembled a team of singers who can sustain the long melodic lines and unspectacular vocal parts admirably. I particularly enjoyed the characterisation of the sleepless Herod by bass Matthew Rose in his anguished aria early in Part 1, and the rapt domestic scenes of Mary (meszzo Karen Cargill) and Joseph (baritone William Dazeley), which Sir Colin takes his time over, to great effect. Yan Beuron is a suitably French-sounding and authoritative Narrator, and the other non-French singers manage reasonable French accents and good diction.
Much of the work is given over to the chorus, and the Tenebrae Choir do a fine job, incisive and with a luminous and well-blended depth of tone. Perhaps I should add Sir Colin Davis to the list of vocalists, as he does tend to sing along sometimes, sotto voce in a low octave. Because of the quietness of most of the music, it is not difficult to hear his contributions. I mostly viewed them as evidence of the conductor's deep involvement in Berlioz's work and was not unduly disturbed by them, although they did distract me a little from time to time, notably in the Overture to Part 2, and, sadly, in the soulful Shepherd's Farewell at the start of disc 2.
The orchestra have no virtuosic work to do, but Berlioz gives them instrumental interludes between tableaux, and the LSO are sympathetic players. Details like the soft ecstatic trills on the violins in the aforementioned Joseph and Mary scene come through and add much to the performance. Particularly enchanting is the trio for two flutes and harp in Part 3, where entertainment is provided for the Holy Family at a house of Ishmailites in Egypt.
Recording engineer James Mallinson does his best with the notoriously dry Barbican acoustic over two live performances captured in December 2006. The DSD 5.1 multichannel sound is immediate and the orchestral sections well-placed spatially, although there is no really convincing back-to-front perspective on the platform, despite a discrete contribution from the rear speakers. I do feel that this work needs a greater acoustic halo to enhance its atmosphere, although on these discs you do hear everything with great clarity (including Sir Colin). The stereo SACD layer is fine, although a little drier.
The LSO Live presentation is very good, two discs in a slim-line case, within a card slip-case. The substantial booklet has all the texts in French and English (and tiny typesetting), and there are notes and biographical information in French, German and English.
All considered, a really enjoyable L'Enfance, perhaps not as polished as some of the studio-bound red book versions, but lovingly performed and with outstanding detail. Recommended.
Copyright © 2007 John Miller and HRAudio.net