United Kingdom Berlioz: Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 17.12.2018. (CC)
Berlioz – L’Enfance du Christ, Op.25
Karen Cargill (mezzo) – Mary
Robert Murray (tenor) – Narrator/Centurion
Etienne Dupuis (baritone) – Joseph/Polydorus
Matthew Rose (bass) – Herod/Father of the Family
Performed sans interval, this was a reminder of the other Berlioz, the intimate, tender one. As searingly original as one might expect from this composer, it nevertheless breathes interiorisation. It is all of a piece, too, despite its rather convoluted gestation, starting life as an organ piece occasioned by a request at a party in 1850, the work allegedly by a Master of the Sainte-Chapelle, a certain ‘Ducré’ (an invention of Berlioz). This Andantino in four parts became the ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ and was expanded with an overture and a tenor solo to make ‘The Flight into Egypt’, the central panel of the “sacred trilogy” L’Enfance du Christ. ‘The Arrival at Saïs’ was the next to follow, finished in early 1854; finally, ‘Herod’s Dream’, suggested by the British music publisher Frederick Beale. The premiere of the complete work was in December 1854, in Paris.
Modal inflections allow the music to suggest the archaic nature of the work’s subject matter. Edward Gardner was a superb guide through the work’s impeccably French beauty, inspiring the BBC forces to impeccable phrasing. His pacing was superb, and the orchestra played marvelously throughout. (A mere ten days ago the BBCSO impressed in similar fashion under the charismatic baton of Rafael Payere (review click here); it would appear we may be entering into a bright new chapter of the orchestra’s history). Gardner ensured the drama that the score does include was kept within the overall parameters of the work.
The sheer discipline of the orchestral ‘Nocturnal March’ in the first scene proper of Part I was amazing, as was the incisiveness of the strings at the opening of the second scene (the interior of Herod’s palace) while solo players excelled, from the oboe of BBC veteran Richard Simpson and the haunting clarinet of James Burke. On a section level, the three trombones of the BBCSO were absolutely together in their contribution to the Soothsayers’ chorus in Part I Scene 4; on a chamber music level, the two flutes and harp of Michael Cox, Kathleen Stevenson and Louise Martin respectively performed the rather long Trio in Scene 2 – ‘performed by the young Ishmaelites’ according to the score – beautifully. Gardner’s antiphonal layout of the strings paid off in spades in the beautifully shaped ‘Overture’ of the Second Part, ‘The Flight into Egypt’, while the high violins kept their tone in the ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’. The orchestra’s incredibly nimble performance of the graphic passage depicting the young Ishmaelites and their servants scattering throughout their house carrying out the Father of the Family’s orders was simply awe-inspiring.
The line-up of soloists was of the very highest tier. Tenor Robert Murray, delivering his French like a native, delivered a splendid Prologue as the Narrator; later we had confirmation of the variety of his tone in a plangent ‘Presque mouriants’ (‘Near to death’, Part 3) while the ever-excellent Matthew Rose as Herod was nothing short of glorious in his delivery of ‘Ô Nuit profonde’; later, he became “Father of the family,” where he captured the livelier aspect of the part to perfection.
The pearl of the soloists was Karen Cargill, believable in her projection of Mary’s emotions (particularly Mary’s sense of fear in the first scene of the final part). Her voice was beautifully even throughout, her phrasing absolutely natural. Cargill’s Joseph was the baritone Etienne Dupuis, and if one was to be ultra-picky he was the closest one can come to a weak link in the chain of soloists. Perhaps it was when he joined Cargill in the duet in the earlier passages in Part 4 (as Joseph) that he was found just a touch wanting; his contributions later on found him on a firmer footing, and the vocal trio between Mary, Joseph and the Father positively glowed.
The BBC Symphony Chorus was on top form, as were the members of the BBC Singers who delivered the closing Amens magically and radiantly from the top back of the hall. As 2018’s concerts and opera draw to a close, this was a simply superb way to see out the year.