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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
L'Enfance du Christ (1853-55) [100:52]
Jean Rigby (mezzo) - La Vièrge Marie
Alastair Miles (bass) - Hérode
Gerald Finley (baritone) - Joseph
John Aler (tenor) - Le Récitant
Gwynne Howell (bass) - Le Père de Famille
Peter Evans (tenor) - Centurion
Robert Poulton (baritone), Polydorus
St. Paul's Cathedral Choristers
Corydon Singers and Orchestra/Matthew Best
rec. October 1994
HYPERION DYAD CDD22067 [44:04 + 56:48]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the sort of performance that makes the reviewer's job difficult, simply because it always sounds "right". Matthew Best's tempi sound spot-on, the phrases flow in a natural, cantabile manner, and the progression from movement to movement sounds inevitable. It's the kind of reading that tends to disarm criticism and to beg analysis, and it would be nice just to say, buy it and enjoy it - still, some specifics are probably in order.

To begin, the score has never before sounded quite so "French". High-profile virtuoso orchestras have played this music handsomely on record - notably the Boston Symphony and the London Symphony, for Munch (RCA) and Colin Davis (Philips, lost in Universal Music's digital limbo) respectively - but with a sort of all-purpose cosmopolitan sheen. Best somehow finds, or feels, the balance of colors that brings Berlioz's orchestral palette back to its French roots. Listen to the Ouverture to Part II, where the sequence and blend of woodwind solos evokes the reed-heavy registration of a French organ; the aural image persists as the flowing strings re-enter, section by section. Yet the playing also evinces plenty of refinement: the Trio in Part III, for two flutes and harp, is limpid and delicate, remaining so as its central section moves into higher gear. The players are deservedly identified as Daniel Pailthorpe and Sarah Newbold, flutes, and Skaila Kanga, harp. Throughout the performance, rhythms are animated, with neat dovetailings among the various orchestral sections; the only flaw - and you'd have to be listening for it - is the occasional awkward grumble from the bass strings.

French singing, on the other hand, would not be something necessarily to emulate - those wondering at the reasons are urged to consult Richard Miller's English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing (Scarecrow Press, Metuchen NJ, 1977) - and fortunately, that doesn't happen here: the blended, full-bodied tone of the Corydon Singers represents the best of the British choral tradition. In L'Adieu des Bergers à la Sainte Famille, the rich choral sound, backed unobtrusively by the orchestra and enhanced by the ambient acoustic, exemplifies devotional singing of the best sort. Yet the same singers make the light, airy fugue of "Que de leurs pieds" (disc 2, track 7) as springy as anything in Handel - though the nervously chirping, woodwind-dominated interlude that follows thoroughly dispels that resemblance!

The solo line-up is strong. I associate Jean Rigby's singing with a rich, contralto-like timbre, so it's a pleasant surprise to hear her float the lullaby in such a tender, spinning head mixture. She and Gerald Finley, a firm, sensitive baritone, make a warm, loving pair of parents for the Christ Child. Oddly, Rigby sounds more diffuse in the mid-range writing of "Dans cette ville immense" in Part III, which she should have found more congenial, and her final high cadence in that movement betrays some strain.

At the start of Herod's solo scene, Alistair Miles is unsteady on sustained tones - an oratorio bass caught just after the "sell-by" date, perhaps. As the monologue progresses, however, Miles brings it such a degree of reflective nuance that one actually ends up feeling sorry for the man. Gwynne Howell is an authoritative, sympathetic Père de Famille, sounding less thewy and constricted than he did in the 1980s for, say, the Solti Messiah (Decca).

The Récitant here plays a lesser role than did the ubiquitous narrators of early Baroque oratorio, Berlioz preferring to move his story forward through the dramatis personae - one of which is the orchestra! In the two important solos connecting Parts II and III, John Aler sings ardently, with the right sort of 6/8 swing. Against this are the mild debits of regular, unsubtle stresses - which aren't Gallic, either musically or linguistically - and the occasional white high note. He also drives the vowels a bit hard in the Epilogue.

Sonically, this recording strikes an ideal balance between definition and resonance. The aforementioned ambient acoustic colors and warms the overall sonority, without losing clarity of orchestral and choral detail; one wishes that the engineers at Chandos and Nimbus could have achieved such results. The perspective on the solo voices is ideal.

The "Dyad" series is Hyperion's answer to the various two-for-one reissue packages from Universal (Double Decca, Philips Duo). At such prices, especially, this ought to be in your collection - it's a performance to love and to cherish.

Stephen Francis Vasta