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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
L’Enfance du Christ, Op 25 (1850, 1853-54) [89:52]
Un Récitant – Andrew Staples (tenor); Sainte Marie – Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano); Saint Joseph – Roderick Williams (baritone); Hérode/Un Maître de maison (Père de famille) – Matthew Brook (bass-baritone); Polydorus – Shane Lowrencev (bass-baritone); Un Centurion – Andrew Goodwin (tenor).
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus & Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, Australia. DSD
French text and English translation included
CHANDOS CHSA5228(2) SACD [53:25 + 36:27]

L’Enfance du Christ is quite unique in Berlioz’s output. All his other substantial works include many dramatic, spectacular passages but L’Enfance is on an altogether more intimate scale. It’s surprising, in some ways, that Berlioz, who was not an orthodox believer, should have composed such a gentle religious work but, as Hugh Mcdonald relates in his booklet essay, the work had a complicated and quite lengthy gestation and evolved over time into the form in which we know it today. The background to the work is summarised in a recent review by my Seen and Heard colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey. Paul was writing about a performance given in Cardiff by Sir Andrew Davis in February 2019 and I suspect it was not a coincidence that the three principal male solo roles were taken then by the singers who do duty for him on this recording.

I don’t know if this Melbourne recording is a live one. There’s no indication of that in the documentation. On the other hand, the recording dates are given as 15, 16 and 18 June, 2018 and the booklet includes a good number of photographs taken at a concert performance on the first of those three dates so it may well be that we have a live recording here. If so, I can assure readers that there is no noise to signal the presence of an audience.

One important feature of this performance is that a large chorus is used – judging by the performance photos I suspect the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus comprised some 100 singers. The reason I mention this is because many recordings of the work use smaller, professional choirs. Sir Colin Davis used the John Alldis Choir in his 1976 Philips recording and Tenebrae took part in his 2006 concert recording for LSO Live. Incidentally, that recording, which I believe remains available separately, has just been reissued as part of the Berlioz Odyssey boxed set which Paul Corfield Godfrey recently appraised (review). Robin Ticciati’s recording, which I much admired, involves the Swedish Radio Symphony Choir. Matthew Best’s excellent 1994 version for Hyperion uses his Corydon Singers. That recording was described by Stephen Francis Vasta in his review as “a performance to love and to cherish.” So, in using a larger chorus for a recording, Sir Andrew Davis might seem to be swimming against the tide. As a matter of personal taste, I very much like to hear a small, expert choir in this work; it goes with the work’s essential intimacy. That said, I’d resist any suggestion that the work should be off limits for a larger choir. The key thing is that a large choir needs to sing L’Enfance du Christ with discipline and a proper sense of scale – without sounding tentative. I heard Davis’s February 2019 performance on the radio and felt that the BBC National Chorus of Wales were very successful in that regard. So too, I’m happy to say, is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They sing very well indeed during this performance and at no time did I feel that the choral contribution was out of scale. In Part I, the male voices of the MSOC have a suitably dark-hued sound when they interact with Herod as the Soothsayers. A little later on, in the closing scene of Part I the Chœur d’anges is very nicely distanced and the ladies float their lines beautifully – Ticciati’s angels are even more magically distant, though. The MSOC does the celebrated ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ very well, offering lovely hushed singing in the final verse. Ticciati’s Swedish choir is, perhaps, more flexible and the scale of the performance is more intimate. However, Ticciati takes this number at a controversially fast pace, which I don’t care for; Sir Andrew adopts a more conventional speed and imparts just the right flow into the music. I’ll discuss the very end of the work later on but I’m sure that no one investing in this Chandos set will be disappointed by the choral side of things.

Davis has a strong line-up of soloists. I hadn’t encountered the American mezzo Sasha Cooke until fairly recently when I heard her as one of the soloists in Osmo Vänskä’s recording of Mahler’s Second symphony (review). I liked her contribution to that recording and she impresses here also. At her first appearance (‘O mon cher fils’ in Part I, scene V) I appreciated the warmth of her tone. Her singing is both lovely and intelligent. Here, and elsewhere, she’s a fine duet partner for the Joseph of Roderick Williams. His singing is smooth and well characterised. Interestingly, Robin Ticciati uses a soprano, Véronique Gens, for the role of Marie. That’s often taken by a mezzo but Gens does well. Ticciati’s Joseph is Stephan Loges. He sings well but strikes me as just a bit more forthright than Williams. By a short head I prefer Davis’s Marie and Joseph, not least for the way in which they portray the distress of the parents after their exhausting journey across the desert to Saïs.

Matthew Brook is excellent as Hérode, conveying the king’s torment very convincingly with his big, full voice and then giving orders for the slaying of all the young boys who might pose a threat to his kingship. When a singer is asked to do this role and then, in Part III, to appear as the Ishmaelite Père de famille it’s a tall order because the roles are so different. Brook effects the transformation very successfully. As the Ishmaelite father he uses his voice in a completely different way. He’s welcoming and reassuring when the Holy Family arrives at Saïs and then acts towards them in a kindly, dignified fashion.

Un Récitant is sung by Andrew Staples. He gets our attention immediately, singing the opening narration with a light but firm voice. There’s an edge to his tone which is not at all unpleasant and which I think is quite appropriate in French repertoire. He’s not a Francophone, unlike Yann Beuron, who sings not only for Ticciati but also on the second Colin Davis recording. That brings advantages, of course, but I find Staples’ French very convincing. Crucially, in all the narrations he really tells the story, drawing the listener in. I liked his performance.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays extremely well. This is a score that requires refinement from the orchestra and the Melbourne players deliver the goods. The celebrated trio for two flutes and harp in Part III is absolutely charming and light as a feather. The players should have been named in the booklet. The orchestra responds very well to Sir Andrew Davis who conducts the performance with a very pleasing lightness of touch, demonstrating excellent empathy for the music.

The Epilogue to L’Enfance du Christ is arguably the loveliest passage of music in all of Berlioz’s output. It’s hugely demanding of the performers, chiefly the singers who have to sing with great control and sensitivity. Andrew Staples delivers his last narration in a touching and expressive fashion and the MSOC sings extremely well – their singing is highly controlled and their sensitivity to the dynamics is admirable. The very end of the piece is beautifully hushed. I love this passage of the work and I did quite a lot of comparisons. None of the versions I’ve previously mentioned disappointed me in the slightest, but one stood out. The Epilogue is wondrously done in Mathew Best’s recording. His narrator, John Aler, has slightly less edge to his tone than Andrew Staples – indeed, I think he occupies “middle ground” between Staples and Yann Beuron. But it’s Best’s choir that really seals the deal. The Corydon Singers show terrific sensitivity here and I think the acoustic of their recording venue helps. The venue is not specified in the Hyperion booklet but I bet it was a London church. There’s a lovely glow to the sound and the Angels are magically distanced.

This new Chandos recording of L’Enfance du Christ is very successful. There isn‘t a weak link in the performance and, indeed, it has many strengths. Engineer Alex Stinson has recorded the work expertly – I listened to these SACDs using the stereo option. As you’d expect with a Chandos release, the documentation is excellent. This release is a fine contribution to the Berlioz 150th anniversary.

John Quinn

 



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