Concert Review

Berlioz The Childhood of Christ
LSO & Chorus with soloists cond. Sir Colin Davis. The Barbican 19 December 1999

The childhood of Berlioz is reflected in this endearing masterpiece, which brought unexpected success to the composer, as David Cairns explained in his pre-concert talk. What was to become the Shepherds Farewell chorus in the Flight into Egypt panel was sketched during a game of cards, and several years later Berlioz was persuaded to provide a sequel, and afterwards a prequel, to complete the little oratorio we know and love. The forces required are modest, but everywhere there are subtle Berlozian touches of melody, harmony and orchestration to savour. The simple, archaic elements of much in the score had been imbibed from noëls and chants heard when he was a boy, and biblical oratorios by his now forgotten teacher le Sueur. He was easily able to re-enter the world of the Christmas story as he had first experienced it.

Sir Colin Davis brought care and affection to placing The Childhood of Christ in the sequence of Berlioz masterworks, which will continue through the months to, come, culminating in The Trojans. It was given without an interval with scrupulous attention to orchestral detail and a rapt tone from the chorus at the pianissimo entry of the choir of unseen angels. Orlin Anastassov was powerful in his terror and revengeful determination to launch the Massacre of the Innocents. Simon Keenlyside and Carmen Oprisanu struck the right note as Mary and her consort, though their parts do offer rather limited vocal opportunities. Robert Lloyd, bass, made an effective plain man who welcomed the family after they had been repeatedly rebuffed.

Unfortunately Ian Bostridge, whose appearance as the narrator had been eagerly anticipated, was indisposed with a seasonal malady and had to be replaced at very short notice by Daniel Galvez Vallejo, a lusty tenor flown in at the last minute. He sang mostly too loud and out of scale for this delicate and fragile masterpiece in the Barbican Hall. At the very end, he did scale himself down for the hushed series of isolated unison notes and final benediction. Nor was Ian Bostridge sufficiently recovered to take part in the second performance, so the recording which was to have been for the LSO's own CD label, LSO LIVE, was also unable to go ahead.

I have just received review copies of the first two releases, taken from Barbican Centre concerts conducted by Sir Colin Davis in the autumn. First impressions of Dvorak's Symphony No 8 (October 1999) are that it is magnificent, and recreates both the excitement of a live performance and the mellow, warm Barbican sound, without loss of detail. Reviews of these issues [LSO 0001 (Symphony No. 9 New World and LSO 0002 (Symphony No. 8)] will follow after Christmas, but meanwhile I feel confident that they would make very acceptable up to date Christmas/Millennium presents. For detailed additional information the insert booklets refer readers to the Dvorak Society homepage at this site.
Peter Grahame Woolf

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