Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’Enfance du Christ @ Barbican Hall, London

15 December 2013

While not as commonplace as, say, Handel’s Messiah, performances of Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ are increasingly becoming a feature of the Christmas concert season. For newcomers to the work, this particular performance was as near perfect as one could wish for.

L’Enfance du Christ was pieced together over several years in the 1850s by a composer 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 (or ‘sacred trilogy’ as Berlioz termed it) is lightly scored and employs gentler, more conventional harmonies than are normally found in Berlioz’ music. But this toned down approach was also a deliberate attempt to recapture the memories of simple devotional worship which he had encountered as a child in his home village in the Rhône-Alpes region.

After the intensity of Gergiev’s Berlioz at the Barbican, this thoughtful, measured reading by François-Xavier Roth was a welcome contrast. Although there was plenty of drama, this was a noticeably reflective performance, with the emphasis on the subtler aspects of Berlioz’ scoring. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus employed larger forces than is usual for this piece, but Roth kept both players and singers under tight control, using their extra numbers to add warmth, and to deepen rather than swell the quieter passages.

This performance was also fortunate in having a top rank quartet of soloists. Yann Beuron’s rich, clear tenor voice, invested real emotion into his opening and closing narration, while his treatment of the minor role of the Centurion was operatic in its dramatic sincerity. Bass Christopher Purves brought psychological turmoil to the role of Herod, with some especially memorable singing in the lower register. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and baritone Marcus Farnsworth as Mary and Joseph turned what could have been over-sentimental readings into interpretations of great warmth and sincerity.

Perhaps the most difficult parts to bring off successfully are those taken by the chorus, who variously appear as soothsayers, angels, shepherds and hostile Egyptians. But under Roth’s tight yet sympathetic direction and chorus master Stephen Jackson’s effective training, the characterisation, colouring and diction were all top notch. Only the celebrated Shepherds’ Farewell disappointed a little, with some sudden shifts in dynamics, and an over-emphasis on Berlioz’s ‘rustic’ scoring for bleating woodwind. Jackson himself remained in the Barbican Hall balcony, directing the off-stage Chamber Choir of Trinity Laban, who, as unseen angels, left the audience hushed for an unusually long time after the final ‘amen’ had died away.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.

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