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17 Aug 2019

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Prom 39: L’enfance du Christ - Maxime Pascale conducts the Hallé

A review by David Truslove

Above: Roderick Williams, Julie Boulianne, Allan Clayton and Neal Davies

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


In addition, there was eloquent choral singing and much to admire from the baton-less French conductor Maxime Pascal whose sinuous movements conjured a giant flying invertebrate seemingly from another planet. But his skeletal frame and exaggerated gestures - hands and arms frequently elongated and swooping over the front strings - brought so much life to this charming and original score.

In an anniversary year when one might have expected to hear La damnation de Faust or even the Grande Messe des morts, both works matching the magnitude of the Albert Hall, L’enfance du Christ was an interesting choice, and one not performed at a Prom since 2003. Given the pastoralism and restraint of L’enfance du Christ, its imaginative elaboration of Christ’s childhood could have disappeared from view in this cavernous venue had everything not been so convincingly and vividly projected. Pascale and his forces fashioned a compelling and mostly hall-stilling atmosphere, the spirit of Berlioz’s boldly conceived music conveyed with such care and affection that my quibble regarding the inclusion of an interval soon vanished.

Of course, Berlioz’s theatrical instincts in this ‘sacred trilogy’ are understated in a work that largely occupies a devotional mood, its dramas gently but tellingly evoked in a series of tableaux where delineation of character is stylised ‘in the manner of old illuminated missals’. Domestic and political resonances are discreetly outlined, yet its few dramatic moments such as Herod’s scene with the fanatical soothsayers and Joseph’s attempts to find shelter create an operatic dimension that simultaneously blurs distinctions of genre.

Regardless of such formal divisions, this performance unfolded from its strange woodwind sonorities with an absolute sureness of touch, the Hallé frequently subdued yet always captivating and providing much of the work’s cinematic detail. Pianissimo strings (placed antiphonally and underpinned by six double basses behind them) brought a haunting intensity to Herod’s restlessness in the ‘Nocturnal March’ and the cabalistic dance was carried off with aplomb. The Overture to Part Two was beautifully shaped, woodwind sparkled in the domestic preparations by a welcoming Ishmaelite family in Sais and a restful Trio for harp (Marie Leenhardt) and two flutes (Amy Yule and Sarah Bennett) brought exceptional musicianship.

Much was enjoyed too from Roderick Williams - always an engaging presence on the platform - doubling as a warm-toned Polydorus and Joseph. His was a well-matched partnership with Julie Boulianne, a French-Canadian mezzo blessed with radiant tones, ideally cast as Mary. It’s a shame Berlioz doesn’t provide her with more vocal opportunities, but the stable duet was a delight, shaped with effortless control and tenderness. Allan Clayton impressed too as Narrator and Centurion, singing with polished tone that seemed gripped by a quasi-religious fervour in the Epilogue. His traversal of Christ’s early years and return to Bethlehem was sung with bewitching tenderness, almost heart-breaking at the lines, ‘O my soul, what remains for you to do but shatter your pride before so great a mystery?’ Equally compelling was Neal Davies as Herod and Father of the Family, delivering every ounce of emotion in the troubled dream sequence; upper notes purring nicely and with just enough security at the bottom of the stave. Whether malevolent or munificent, Davies taps into the core of the role and commands our attention.

The combined singers of Britten Sinfonia Voices and Genesis Sixteen caught the ear as Ishmaelites, soothsayers and shepherds, although the much-loved leaving taking of the Holy family didn’t quite have me gasping for breath, wondering how any choir can sing so quietly. A shame that the quadruple piano marking in the third verse was ignored and the love of the shepherds for the Christ child not as moving as it might have been. Whatever shortcomings there, compensation arrived with an angelic chorus offstage, and the work’s ethereal apotheosis could not have been better judged - the chorus transcendent.

David Truslove

Julie Boulianne (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Neal Davies (bass), Maxime Pascal (conductor), Genesis Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia Voices, Hallé

Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 14th August 2019.

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