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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
L'Enfance du Christ, Op. 25 (1850, 1853-54) [96:34]
Yann Beuron (tenor): Le récitant /centurion; Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano): Marie; William Dazeley (baritone): Joseph; Matthew Rose (bass): Hérode; Peter Rose (bass): Le maître de maison (Père de famille)/Polydorus
Tenebrae Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 2 & 3 December 2006, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0606 SACD [41:05 + 55:29]

This was Sir Colin Davis’ third and final recording of one of the few successes Berlioz enjoyed during his lifetime and is the most restrained and under-stated of them all. That is not a criticism; it is a mistake to apply any typically Berliozian bombast to this work, which, although scored for a full orchestra, contains many passages where the orchestration is pared down to a handful of instruments and a serene and contemplative mood obtains. To complement that restraint, Davis engaged the Tenebrae singers who are best known for their performance of polyphonic, Renaissance works and they sing with rapt beauty, complete tonal control and impeccable purity. Surely the Shepherd’s Farewell has never been sung with such poise and feeling; the gradation of dynamics is exquisite and once again Davis judges the tempo perfectly – unlike, for example John Eliot Grainer, who rushes it abominably. Davis coaxes sweet sonority from the playing of the LSO; there are many opportunities for its instrumental soloists to shine such as in the trio for two flutes and harp in the Arrival at Saïs, which is simply lovely.

The cast of soloists, too, is close to ideal, headed by Karen Cargill’s tender, radiant Marie, a performance to match Janet Baker, similarly vibrant and touching. William Dazeley’s elegantly sung Joseph – erroneously feminised in the French column of the libretto as “Sainte (sic) Joseph”- supports her perfectly, and is almost as good as Thomas Allen, who partnered Baker in Davis’ second recording. The work might be predominantly meditational but is certainly not devoid of drama: Matthew Rose does not necessarily erase memories of José van Dam’s searing Herod in Gardiner’s otherwise inconsistent recording but he sings with deep expression and beautiful, black tone, delineating Herod’s anguish almost sympathetically. Lyric French tenor Yann Beuron is sweeter toned than Éric Tappy in that second recording and certainly preferable as far as I am concerned to Peter Pears in the first. His narration is of course perfectly phrased and accented and he overdoes nothing. Peter Rose doubles up first as a firm-voiced Polydorus, then a warm, resonant Father of the Family to complete a thoroughly satisfying line-up.

The acoustic of the Barbican is, as ever, dry and lifeless but that is not a huge handicap in this, the most intimate and small-scale of Berlioz’ output, the only other drawback being Davis’ constant vocalisation, an irritating habit increasingly apparent as he aged.

This is one of the best of the run of Davis’ Berlioz performances recorded in the Barbican. There are many satisfying recordings of this unusual piece but this is in many ways the most satisfying of all for its consistency and gentle beauty.

Ralph Moore

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