Robin Ticciati’s credentials as a Berliozian are already rock-solid. Berlioz has played a major part in his first few seasons as principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and he has made sensational recordings of both the Symphonie Fantastique
and Nuits d’été
with them. He also conducted L’enfance du Christ
in Edinburgh during the same season as he did that Symphonie Fantastique
, so the work is by no means new to him. For this recording, though, he moves to Sweden, and the results are definitely worth writing home about.
Ticciati is clearly deeply in love with Berlioz’s music. He has a great ear for the unfolding shape of the composer’s score. He shapes each phrase lovingly and with a great ear for detail. The first thing you notice is the unusual sound he elicits from an orchestra that is by no means known for its ability to play in period style. He gets the strings to play with minimal vibrato, which lends remarkable colour to the whole performance. Sometimes it can sound austere, and that’s appropriate when depicting Herod’s torments or the perils of the Holy Family in Saïs. However, it also makes them sound light on their feet when they need to, and there is a dance-like quality to the scene in Part Three when the Ishmaelite’s servants tend to the needs of their new guests. The sound of the winds is full of pictorial detail during the scenes for the Holy Family on their own, and the archaic sounding chords that introduce the final scene are very atmospheric.
It isn’t just the orchestral colour that is remarkable, though, but also Ticciati’s ear for Berliozian rhythm. For example, there is an irresistible sense of swing to the march that opens the first part which, together with the soothsayers’ cabbalistic dance, reminds us that Berlioz was an expert at painting in sound. That march then gives way to rhythmic, angular swirling in strings as we gain access to Herod’s troubled mind, each string chord jabbing into Herod’s conscience with a stabbing sforzando
. Ticciati also brings out Berlioz’s skill as a dramatist by transitioning brilliantly, and with the minimum of fuss, from Herod’s paranoia-racked palace to the beauty and simplicity of the Holy Family, with the winds taking the strain of the scene painting.
It is principally because of Ticciati’s control of the orchestra that this disc is worth acquiring. However, his singers are excellent too. Alastair Miles sings Herod’s opening aria with a sense of pained darkness, but he is also a good vocal actor: he rages with believable fury and there is palpable relief in his voice when he discovers that his visitor (at the start of track 5) is only his guard. Véronique Gens sings with great tenderness throughout; she is always subtle and understated, never remotely approaching a prima donna, but instead the very image of the pure and lowly mother. Likewise, Stephan Loges also sings with burnished warmth and all the tenderness of a devoted father. Both seem consciously to give way to the silent figure of the Christ child himself. Yann Beuron makes the (slightly strange) role of the narrator come alive, and links the mysticism of the story with down-to-earth practicality, making it more accessible to us as listeners. The contribution of the chorus is also excellent. They sing the famous Shepherds’ Farewell
with homely gusto, and they are very convincing, rather mysterious angels, set back at just the right distance from the microphone so as to be subtle and distinctive but still beautiful. The final chorus is really magical; rich and beautiful but also transparent, and fading to a wonderfully subtle pianissimo
By now it goes without saying that Linn’s recorded sound and beautiful packaging are outstanding, including the two booklet essays. Texts and translations are included, too. This L’enfance
serves only to enhance Ticciati’s reputation, and is worthy of comparison with any in the catalogue.
Previous review: John Quinn