This is Robin Ticciati’s third Berlioz recording for Linn. He began with a superb version of Symphonie Fantastique,
which I lost no time in acquiring after reading the enthusiastic reviews by Dan Morgan
and Simon Thompson
. Then came a disc that included a very fine account of Les nuits d’été
; I was delighted when that came my way for review
. Both those discs were made with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. For this recording he has moved to Sweden.
Among the choral works of Berlioz L’enfance du Christ
stands poles apart from the Te Deum
and Grande Messe des Morts
. Those latter works are monumental pieces, public in their utterance and requiring very larges forces to perform them. With L’enfance du Christ
we are in an utterly different, much more intimate world. Yet it is as original as any of his works - is there any
significant work by Berlioz that is not original?. It contains some of the most beautiful and charming music ever to come from his pen.
As with any Berlioz work, the recording catalogue is dominated by Sir Colin Davis. He recorded the piece three times: in 1960 for L’Oiseau-Lyre (later reissued on CD by Decca); in 1976 as part of his Berlioz cycle for Philips; and lastly in 2006 for LSO Live, a performance in which Yann Beuron also takes part. There was a fine recording made in 1987 by Sir John Eliot Gardiner in which he combined the forces of the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre de L’Opéra de Lyon. That was originally made for Erato and is now on Warner Classics. There are other fine versions too, which I have not heard, among which the one I most regret missing - so far - is the much praised reading by Matthew Best (review
I believe that, sadly, neither of Sir Colin’s first two recordings are currently available. If you can get hold of a copy either is worth hearing: the earlier recording has Elsie Morrison’s touching portrayal of Mary, John Cameron as a sound Joseph and Peter Pears as the narrator but the choral singing is not quite up to modern standards. The 1976 version has Dame Janet Baker and Sir Thomas Allen as Mary and Joseph and they’re well worth hearing. Gardiner’s version also has much to commend it: the choral singing is as fine as you’d expect; Anne-Sophie von Otter sings Mary with great poise and in Anthony Rolfe-Johnson Gardiner has a wonderfully sweet-toned narrator.
So, Robin Ticciati enters a highly competitive field; how does he fare? Firstly, he has the benefit of the Swedish Radio Chorus who sing superbly for him. The ladies make a quite beautiful choir of Angels at the end of Part I, their voices ideally distanced. At the very end of that passage the gentle cries of ‘Hosanna’ sound as if truly from the distant skies. The last part of the work is equally beautifully voiced by the choir. Overall their contribution is fully comparable with the singing of the Monteverdi Choir (Gardiner) and Tenebrae (Davis, LSO Live). The orchestral playing is also very fine on this new release. The Swedish Radio orchestra offer expert and subtle playing. The Night March in Part I is very alert and atmospheric while the celebrated trio for flutes and harp in Part III is refreshing and completely delightful.
The soloists all do well. On all the recordings in my collection the roles of Herod and the Ishmaelite Father are taken by different singers; here Alistair Miles takes both parts and does so with success. In the big scene for Herod in Part I he conveys the ruler’s troubled spirit very convincingly without undue histrionics and a little later on he rages effectively as he plans to do whatever it takes to dispose of the child who, he believes, threatens his throne. In Part III, in a very different guise, his portrayal of the hospitable Ishmaelite patriarch is most sympathetic.
Though the role of Mary is often taken by a mezzo Véronique Gens is by no means the first soprano to record the role. I enjoyed her performance very much. At her first appearance - ‘O mon cher fils’ - she sounds tender while later, at the start of Part III, she conveys the fleeing Mary’s exhaustion and distress well. Opposite her, Stephan Loges is a reliable Joseph and he sings well. However, I don’t think either quite eclipses the expressiveness of Baker and Allen (Davis, Philips).
Yann Beuron is a clear-voiced narrator; some may feel he’s a bit forthright at times - though he offers some moments of poetry as well. Comparing his singing with the performance he gave for Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live) the style and vocal production are very similar - though I had the feeling that he was perhaps a bit more spontaneous for Davis - but I wonder if he benefits also from a slightly more distanced recording with LSO Live. Both recordings catch his voice very clearly but perhaps the Linn sound is, by comparison, just a bit too close to do him full justice. I enjoyed his performance but I found myself longing at times for the sweetness of tone and the expressiveness of Rolfe-Johnson who remains the best exponent of this role on disc that I’ve heard.
Ticciati’s direction of the score is very sure footed; he conveys the nuances of this very subtle score and he also puts across its spirit very well. No one does it quite like Sir Colin, however; the ending of the work in his 2006 LSO Live recording is utterly magical and, as usual with this great Berlioz interpreter, he paces all the music to perfection. However, no one buying this recording will feel short changed by the conducting and this set offers further evidence of Robin Ticciati’s impressive credentials as a Berlioz interpreter.
As usual with Linn the recorded sound is clear and impressive - and the distanced effects involving the choir are done very well. There’s just one curious thing: quite often a soft noise is faintly audible. Despite listening several times, including through headphones, I can’t identify what it might be - someone breathing, perhaps? I first noticed it in the Nocturnal March (track 2 at 0:32). The noise is evident throughout that track and can be heard again elsewhere during the performance. I’m as sure as I can be that it’s not a pressing fault on the disc. I didn’t find it a distraction but I feel obliged to point it out. The booklet, in which everything is printed really clearly - some other labels, please copy - contains two excellent essays: one, on the music itself is by Hugh Macdonald; the other, rather unusually, offers a Theological Perspective on the work by Ben Quash, which contains some most illuminating reflections on the work.
This is a most welcome release which further enhances the credentials of Robin Ticciati, especially in Berlioz.