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

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 HallÈ 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

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, HallÈ

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

product_title=Prom 39: L’enfance du Christ – Maxime Pascale conducts the HallÈ
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Roderick Williams, Julie Boulianne, Allan Clayton and Neal Davies

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou