United Kingdom Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ, Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Yann Beuron (tenor), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Christopher Purves (bass), BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 15.12.2013 (GDn)
After the high-octane Berlioz performances from Gergiev and Salonen earlier in the year, this more measured reading from François-Xavier Roth came as a welcome relief. Patience and clarity are his primary virtues, and in this work they count for a lot. For all the pastoral grace of L’enfance du Christ, there is plenty of drama here, and Roth was able to bring that out too. But on the whole, this was an intimate and reflective reading; well sung, well played, and carefully balanced to bring out all the distinctive details of the work’s scoring and structure.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus fielded surprisingly large forces, filling the stage with players and singers. Neither the ensemble nor the balance suffered, and Roth employed the huge ensemble more to round out the warmth of the quieter passages than to up the dynamics in the few climaxes. The sound of the large string section performing the muted lyrical lines in the opening section was particularly attractive, and an early taste of what was to come in terms of finely controlled tone colour and balance
Roth and/or the BBC assembled a close-to-ideal line up of soloists, each bringing real character and a distinctive sound to their respective parts. Yann Beuron has a rich, clear voice, and the almost unique ability to fill the dull Barbican acoustic with his ringing tone. His performance was perhaps a little too emotive for the essentially expository role of the Narrator, although it was better suited to the role of the Centurion. Christopher Purves brought all the menace of his recent performance in Written on Skin to the part of Herod, giving an appropriately sinister reading without ever tipping over into unintentional comedy. His voice is particularly fine in the lower part of his range, and Berlioz seems to have written the part for just such a voice, setting all the most menacing lines lower down. Francophone listeners may take issue with some of his pronunciation, but from my monoglot(ish) perspective, I’ve no cause to complain.
As the new mum and dad, Karen Cargill and Marcus Farnsworth made an excellent pairing, the colour and weight of their voices balancing well. Cargill has a very heavy and always-on vibrato, which isn’t really to my taste, but is probably appropriate to the repertoire. In general, though, her voice is light and fresh, as is Farnsworth’s, bringing an ideal sense of youthfulness to two roles.
While Roth never goes to dramatic extremes, neither does he play it safe. In particular, he uses the very quietest passages of the score to take all the performers outside their comfort zone. Cargill’s first aria, towards the end of the first part, is accompanied by some complex textures in the strings and woodwind, yet everything is at a very low dynamic. Roth allowed her to sing as quietly as she liked, forcing the players to bring out their complex lines, yet at the very lowest dynamic. The results were fragile but secure, and exquisitely beautiful.
At the other end of the spectrum, Roth drew a wide range of textures and colours from the chorus. He made the very most of the Shepherds’ Farewell, emphasising all the dynamic swells and hard accents, but without ever exaggerating the effects or risking pedantry. And the chorus delivered magnificently, both here and in the polyphonic section at the start of the third part, their two major contributions. Choirmaster Stephen Jackson, who, no doubt, drilled the singers well for this appearance, was not on-stage, but was at the back of the hall, on the upper balcony, directing the off-stage angelic choir. Our angels this afternoon were the Chamber Choir of Trinity Laban, who sang well, although this wasn’t music to challenge them. The placement of the choir was inspired: given the problems that this hall poses when it comes to positioning vocal ensembles, on- or off-stage, the distant yet clear sound that this placing created was surprisingly effective.
The Epilogue to the work was particularly well handled. The music here is quiet and gentle, and again Roth went to daring extremes, taking the dynamics down to create extraordinary delicate and subtle textures. Now Beuron was able to demonstrate another facet of his art, a focussed pianissimo, as clear and rich as his louder declamations at the start, and projecting just as well. An elegant and touching close to a moving performance, one very much to the credit of all involved.
This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio and will be available here to listen on demand until 22nd December 2013.