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BERLIOZ, L'enfance du Christ, Soloists: Alison Kettlewell, James Gilchrist, Jared Holt, Michael Druiett, Northern Sinfonia Orchestra and Chorus/Pierre-André Valade, St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2nd December 2004 (JL)


As a chamber orchestra the Northern Sinfonia is tailor made for the sound world of Berlioz's extraordinary tale of the nativity, uncharacteristically scored, as the work is, for relatively small forces. The superb playing of its members contributed to a world-class performance in the Cathedral of their hometown.


Anglican cathedrals are tricky venues for concerts, the main hazard being an over reverberant acoustic caused by high vaulted roofs, wide transepts which are usually adjacent to the performers, and lots of stone surface. Then there are hard pews to sit on and, at this time of year, the danger of an uncomfortably low ambient temperature.


Newcastle's St Nicholas' is, however, one of the smallest of English cathedrals - in fact a former parish church - and there is none of the cavernous echoing of a larger building which could do serious damage to the composer's wonderfully delicate and translucent textures. Yet there was plenty of air for the music to breath and what a perfect setting for Berlioz's "invisible" choir of angels and "mystic chorus", the sound of which hovered celestially throughout the building's consecrated space. The shortage of space on the ground though forced the earthly characters of Mary, Joseph and Herod to sing from the cramped confines of the front row pew in a rare but welcome intimacy with the audience. This allowed for a palpable sharing of emotion. Michael Druiett was commanding as Herod but powerfully conveyed his agonizing. Alison Kettlewell and Jared Holt, two experienced but relatively young singers (definitely up-and-coming) blended together beautifully as history's most famous parents. Both have vocal warmth, which conveyed the strength of the relationship and they steered us movingly through the ups and downs of the journey from Jerusalem to Egypt. The narrator was sung by the tenor James Gilchrist from the commanding heights of the stone pulpit and his clear lyrical voice was a joy.


The French conductor, Pierre-André Valade, a Boulez protégée who has been building a significant reputation with contemporary repertoire, directed this mid C19th music with suitable Gallic poise. There was an overall restraint that made the emotional and narrative high points all the more intense and helped to bring out the beauty of the solo instrumental lines that characterize the score. Berlioz was one of the least sentimental of composers but this work, especially with its celestial choir content, could easily fall prey to a sentimental rendering. A good example would be the famous Shepherds’ Farewell chorus which, with its twisting harmony, is often emotionally milked in out-of-context pop-classic performances. No chance here where the conductor took it at a fair pace and all the better for it. The Sinfonia responded magnificently to the treatment, as did the chorus, albeit slightly underpowered in the tenor department. French pronunciation, so often a weak point with British choirs, was well above average as it was with the soloists.


At the end of the work the choir performs unaccompanied combined with the offstage female voices in a hushed, dying-away passage that would expose many a lesser set of singers. At the final Amen that oft aimed-for but rarely attained illusion of banishing the seam between dying sound and silence really did seem to be achieved. Magical.


John Leeman



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