Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ is a bit of a divider. It’s certainly quite different from the composer’s other large works; there’s little of the grotesque or of bombast in it: the brass and drums make an appearance in Part I for a night-time Roman march and to add a sinister note to the plots of Herod and his soothsayers, but after that, it’s largely a strings-and-woodwind pastoral work that equates to Watteau rather than Géricault. The work never really allows much dramatic wallowing – it contains a lot of accompanied recitative or plot exposition, and there are no extended arias or duets. Even the choruses (with the possible exception of the famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’) are fairly brief.
For those of us who stand, along with Berlioz, in tetchy surprise at the work’s appeal, Monday night’s performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Edward Gardner, did little to change our minds about it. Gardner, with his opera background, might have made more of the limited drama, but somehow, the performance remained – apart from the delightful solo work – largely earthbound.
The orchestra gave a decent enough account, summoning a solid string tone for Herod’s entry, and providing some pleasant olde-worlde woodwind sounds (heavy on the oboes, bassoons and cor anglais) to paint the bucolic moments, such as the opening of Part II. The trio in Part III, for harp and two flutes was delivered with sensitivity by Michael Cox, Kathleen Stevenson and Louise Martin. And although the dynamic control for the al niente after the angelic Alleluias made for a special moment, the Nocturnal March in the first scene seemed to get too loud too quickly, and didn’t have the feeling of muffled threat that it might have had.
The choral numbers were a bit of a mixed bag. The final ‘O mon âme’ was given a controlled and gentle rendering (clever of Berlioz not to bring the orchestra in after a lengthy unaccompanied chromatic exposition, after which even a good chorus is likely to drop its pitch), and the female angelic chorus in the gallery (members of the BBC Singers) were appropriately celestial; ‘The Shepherds’ Farewell’, too, received a reasonable account. The men for the chorus of soothsayers, however, weren’t always precise on their entries. The main choral problem, however, was one of balance: whenever the dynamic for full chorus rose to more than mezzo piano, the sopranos and altos tended to swamp the tenors and basses.
The highlights, though, came from the four soloists. Robert Murray executed the tenor Narrator role throughout with an effortlessly bright tone that had hints of a Bach Evangelist. Étienne Dupuis’ baritone has a slightly nasal quality, as well as being warm and focused – perfect for his role as Joseph. Karen Cargill is a regular performer with the BBC SO, and her creamy mezzo worked well as Mary, although it’s a pity that, apart from the short ‘O mon cher fils’ (in which her ‘Ils sont si doux’ with its little oboe echo, was magical), she gets little in the way of an extended solo. Her equally brief duet with Dupuis (‘Oh, par pitié’) was utterly delicious, the two voices making for a peerless blend. It was left to the bass Matthew Rose to inject the most drama into the piece, firstly as Herod (for which role he employed a dark tone of solid malevolence), but secondly, by complete contrast, as the Ishmaelite Father of the Family (who gives Mary, Joseph and the infant Christ shelter in Sais), for which he deployed a rich, solid comforting timbre.