Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ, London

(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 funËbre 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

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 FaurÈ’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.

image_description=Chapiteau, la fuite en Egypte, CathÈdrale d’Autun
product_title=Hector Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ, op.25
product_by=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.
product_id=Above: Chapiteau, la fuite en Egypte (CathÈdrale Saint-Lazare d’Autun)