United Kingdom Berlioz, L’Enfance du Christ: Soloists, SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Emmanuel Krivine (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.10.2016 (SRT)
Narrator: Bernard Richter
Mary: Christianne Stotijn
Joseph: Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Herod/Ishmaelite Father: Jérôme Varnier
There’s nothing particularly Christmassy about L’Enfance du Christ, so hearing Berlioz’s “sacred trilogy” outside of the festive season gives an audience a welcome excuse to focus on what lies beyond the famous Shepherds’ Farewell. It allows us to rediscover a story about refugees in a far-off land who become reliant on the kindness of strangers, a message that our own time knows well. It also helps open our ears to just how original Berlioz’s deployment of his forces often is, and one of the strengths of this SCO performance was the way they embraced that, using open textures and minimal vibrato (an Emmanuel Krivine speciality) to wheedle themselves more convincingly into Berlioz’s intentionally archaic sound-world. That didn’t stop the strings sounding powerful when they needed to, such as the agitated violins and surging cellos that accompanied Herod’s dream scene, and the orchestra embraced the effects when they came, such as the baleful fanfares that announced the Slaughter of the Innocents, the busy violin scurryings of the Ishmaelite servants, or the beautifully played trio for the flutes and harp in Part Three.
The SCO Chorus, too, sounded exceptionally fine tonight, with beautifully rounded tone for the Shepherds’ Farwell and a gloriously meditative final chorus, helped, perhaps, by having the men and women interspersed among one another. The male soothsayers and female angels also sounded great in their individual moments, as did the quartet of mostly Francophone soloists, crowned by a marvellous narrator in Bernard Richter, full of Gallic style and marvellously caractéristique tone. For his singing, and for the orchestra’s playing, the section of the evening I enjoyed the most was the arrival at the oasis in Part Two, full of colour and ardour. Jérôme Varnier made a marvellously dusky Herod and an Ishmaelite Father who was both sympathetic yet distant. Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang well but was uniformly wooden in delivery. Only Christianne Stotijn sounded a little off-form, stretching for the note on several occasions, and not always reaching it.
Emmanuel Krivine shaped the sound very well, but his dramatic instincts appeared to have deserted him at several key points, principally through some inexplicable pauses that he introduced between the numbers, killing the dramatic flow. Most heinously, he paused between the two major scenes of Part One to allow the brass to leave the stage, not only wrecking the pace but destroying one of the finest quasi-cinematic segues in Berlioz. Even more bizarrely, he himself suggested that they encore the Shepherds’ Farewell straight after they had sung it in Part Two. It was, he justified, “une merveille de nature.” Come off it! It was good, but it wasn’t that good!