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Chapiteau, la fuite en Egypte, Cathédrale d'Autun
09 Dec 2011

Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ, London

I have somehow managed to miss Sir Colin Davis’s London performances of L’Enfance du Christ, making it one of the final major Berlioz works I have heard in the flesh.

Hector Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ, op.25

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Allan Clayton (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Neal Davies (bass). Britten Sinfonia Voices (chorus master: Eamonn Dougan); Britten Sinfonia; Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Thursday 8 December 2011.

Above: Chapiteau, la fuite en Egypte (Cathédrale Saint-Lazare d’Autun)


(I hope to rectify the understandable omission of the Messe solenelle when Riccardo Muti conducts it in Salzburg next summer, a performance of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale remaining.) There was much to enjoy in this performance from Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia, though my impression was that much of an often badly-behaved audience enjoyed it more than I did. (The second half was considerably delayed whilst the rest of us were compelled to wait for a gang of braying corporate hospitality beneficiaries from Mills and Reeves solicitors. I should like to think that it was from that group that a friend overheard some people announcing that the work had been composed by Benjamin Britten…)

For me, the problem lay in Elder’s conducting, certainly not in the ever-immediate response of the Britten Sinfonia. On the positive side, Elder imparted drive to the narrative, almost as if this were an opera rather than a dramatic choral work. (Berlioz never termed it an oratorio, though it is commonly and harmlessly thus described today.) I especially liked the ominous orchestral tread from Herod’s Palace, forshadowing the ‘Libera me’ from Fauré’s Requiem. Berlioz’s inimitable nervous energy was present throughout, to considerable effect. And the Ishmaelite trio for two flutes and harp was an utter delight, charmant to a degree, though it seemed quite unnecessary for the conductor to traverse the stage to conduct it. The bassoon timbre, echoing, consciously or otherwise, the music for the Witch of Endor in Handel’s Saul, was spot on for the appearance of Herod’s soothsayers. But the near-absence, certain orchestral rebellions notwithstanding, of string vibrato was a serious problem. The Vibratoverbot was not universally applied, or at least not universally adhered to: I both saw and heard valiant musicians tempt the wrath of the Norringtonian gods. There are so many objections to this practice that it is difficult to know where to start. It is utterly unhistorical, despite the pseudo-historical pleas routinely made for it. At any rate, the contrast between lively, colourful, plausibly ‘French’ woodwind and frankly unpleasant string sound was jarring. Indeed, the poor violins were forced to play for the scene in the Bethlehem stable in a fashion more reminiscent of a scratchy school orchestra than the fine ensemble we all know this to be. It could have been worse for them, I suppose: they might have been members of Norrington’s demoralised Stuttgart orchestra. Afterwards, I noticed a quotation from Elder in the programme: ‘Each particular scene has its own timbre. It is not a rich, twentieth-century sound but rather more restrained with little vibrato in the voices and instruments.’ No justification is made for the claim, let alone the results, but I cannot help wondering why, if every scene has its own timbre, a more-or-less blanket prohibition on vibrato is considered appropriate.

Choral singing was first-rate throughout, the Britten Sinfonia Voices clearly well trained by Eamonn Dougan. The choir’s keenness in the fugue, ‘Que de leurs pieds meurtris on lave les blessures!’ was exemplary, likewise the fine blend of the final a cappella chorus (with narrator), a barrage of coughs notwithstanding. Offstage, the invisible angels impressed equally, though there was something distinctly odd about the sound of the organ; I assume it must have been electronic. That the Shepherds’ Farewell was a little hasty was no fault of the singers.

The vocal soloists all had their strengths too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams proved the strongest: what a joy it was to hear such a melting duet from them in the stable scene, their voices happily uniting deeply-felt expressiveness with Gallic elegance. The French language heard elsewhere was often more of a trial; though Allan Clayton often sang beautifully, especially at the close, the meaning of the words was not always quite so apparent. Whilst Neal Davies had his moments, the power of his projection of Herod’s turmoil — at times, this presages both musically and temperamentally close to Boris Godunov — was often compromised by a tendency to emote excessively. The dryness at the bottom of his range was cruelly exposed from time to time.

In a sense, I have saved the worst until last: a half-baked attempt — Elder’s initiative, I am told — to evoke a sense of ‘community’ prior to the performance. Even some time after the solicitors and their important clients had deigned to join proceedings, we were made to wait a good few minutes whilst Elder and various members of the orchestra walked around on stage, conversing inaudibly in a fashion that would have shamed the most homespun of amateur dramatic societies. A concert scheduled for 7.30 thus began at 7.45. Alas, the only ‘community’ evoked was that of Deborah Warner’s ludicrous ENO staging of the Messiah. (For those brave enough to relive the horror, click here.) There was so much that was good in this performance that it was a real pity for a few aspects to have detracted from it so significantly. Let us hope, then, that London will not have to wait too long for another performance from Sir Colin.

Mark Berry

Click here for additional information regarding this performance.

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