Anyone searching for a pre-Christmas miracle should have looked in on this concert by the Britten Sinfonia. Brilliantly performed, it was a revelation, to even those listeners familiar with Berliozs music.
LEnfance du Christ was pieced together over several years in the 1850s by a composer sick and tired of the negative response of the Parisian public and critical establishment to his musical innovations. Partly as a result of this, the hybrid oratorio in three parts is lightly scored and employs gentler, more conventional, harmonies than are normally found in Berliozs music. But his toned down approach was also a deliberate attempt to recapture the memories of simple devotional worship which he had encountered as a child and young man in his home village in the Rhne-Alpes.
As a trio of discreet tableaux (Herods Dream, The Flight into Egypt and The Arrival at Sas), LEnfance does not work especially well dramatically, so it relies heavily on the interpretations of the singers to give it emotional force. This performance was fortunate in having a top rank quartet of soloists. Tenor Allan Claytons Narrator opened and concluded the story of the Holy Familys escape to Egypt. His high, yearning, tone at the top end of the register was faultless. Equally impressive was bass Neal Davies as the tyrannical but pitifully troubled King Herod. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and baritone Roderick Williams as Mary and Joseph managed to turn what could have been over-sentimental readings into interpretations of great warmth and sincerity.
Top marks too for Sir Mark Elder and the players of the Britten Sinfonia. They ratcheted up the drama in each scene and displayed a technical mastery over some of Berliozs trickier passages the nocturnal marches in Part I, or the spare woodwind chords that introduce the epilogue, for example. But the biggest plaudits should go to the newly formed Britten Sinfonia Voices in their very first performance. They and director Eamonn Dougan perfectly judged each scene, displaying a range of moods that will see them adapting well to a wide repertoire in the future. Their vituperative rejection of the Holy Familys arrival at Sas in Part III was genuinely nasty, while the ghostly (and unaccompanied) decrescendo chorus at the works end stayed in the memory long after the final notes had died away.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk