Entrancing Christmas Berlioz in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ: Anna Stephany (mezzo), Barry Banks (tenor), Mathew Brook (bass-baritone), Henry Waddington (bass),  BBC National Chorus of Wales, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 9.12.11 (GPu)

One of the several benefits of Thierry Fischer’s time (soon to come to a close) as Principal Conductor of BBC National Orchestra of Wales has been a series of performances of Berlioz’s works for soloists, choir and orchestra. After performances of La Damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette we were offered L’enfance du Christ as a pre-Christmas treat. And quite a treat it was.

L’enfance du Christis one of Berlioz’s most coherent musical constructions, powerfully tracing an arc from paranoia and a fearful obsession with earthly power to heavenly peace and the affirmation of “grave et pur amour”. Thierry Fischer’s conducting of the work was imbued with a strong sense of the work’s larger architecture but also relished many of the musical (and textual) details along the way. A very effective team of soloists and fine performances by choir(s) and orchestra made for a thoroughly satisfying and quietly moving evening. Quasi-operatic the work may be in some respects – Berlioz was in no sense a Christian at the time of composition – but the work, when well interpreted, does have a warmly human spirituality to it, an understanding of the significance of the event it celebrates – qualities very evident on this occasion.

Part I, largely dominated by Herod’s (self)destructiveness, got off to a fine start with the opening narration by Barry Banks, a model of clarity and unforced tonal variety, his words delivered with a well-judged sense of narrative pace and authority. Henry Waddington as Herod didn’t make the most of the possibilities of characterisation offered by Berlioz’s text and music and was a little dry and constricted of voice initially, though the voice gradually managed to open up more successfully. The basses of the choir made powerful Soothsayers and the orchestra was heard at something like its best, whether in the Nocturnal March or in the orchestral introduction to Scene Five, played with beautiful refinement and balance, as the scene shifts from Herod’s palace to the stable in Bethlehem. Anna Stephany immediately established her role as Mary, her interpretation full of rapt tenderness and an attractive youthfulness. Mathew Brook’s Joseph proved a fitting partner vocally, and his and Stephany’s voices blended magically in their initial duet, a duet which was the quintessence of benedictory assurance. But both proved equally well able to communicate their anxiety over the child’s safety when warned by the invisible choir of angels (evocatively placed off stage).

In the overture to Part II the woodwinds of the orchestra were an exemplum of delicacy which didn’t lose anything in authority or warmth, and Fischer drew from the choir a farewell to the holy family (‘Il s’en va loin de la terre’) which fused faithful concern with loving prayerfulness, both shot through with underlying confidence. Banks was again very impressive in ‘Les pèlerins étant venus’, his melodic lines beautifully shaped and contriving to communicate a sense of divine stillness while effectively progressing the narrative.

In Part III one was repeatedly struck by just how economically Berlioz’s orchestral writing creates mood, stimulates the visual imagination or supports the detail of his text. Henry Waddington was more persuasive as the Ishmaelite Father of the Family than he had been as Herod, bringing a quiet dignity and tenderness to the role, finding a quietly radiant power of expression in ‘Vous pleurez, jeune mère’. The interplay of Stephany and Brook was touching, both of them pleasingly secure of voice and both of them finding means of characterisation that were never inappropriately over-demonstrative (one of the pleasures of this whole performance was that all concerned avoided the temptation to overplay the work’s affinities with the opera and its idioms). Their affirmation that ‘les charmes / De l’espoir du Bonheur / Rentrent en notre coeur’ had a winning profundity, which seemed to find words for the famous (and very well played) Trio for two flutes and harp which precedes it.

The remarkable orchestral music which introduces the Epilogue has about it the air of being a passage of transition from one world to another, from a world such as Herod’s dominated by ‘misère’ and ‘les rivières de sang’ to one filled with ‘la sublime douceur’, a world in which ‘la tendresse infinie’ is joined with ‘la sagesse’. In musical terms the transition was beautifully effected, and the results, both in that orchestral introduction and the ensuing dialogue between narrator and choir was wholly entrancing.

There may have been a few very minor blemishes along the way, but this was a moving performance of a remarkable work. Having not long before escaped from the surrounding commercialisation on Cardiff city centre this was a salutary reminder of deeper truths, as much artistic as religious.

Glyn Pursglove