Sir Andrew Davis Launches ‘Berlioz: The Ultimate Romantic’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Matthew Brook (bass), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 15.2.2019. (PCG)

Sir Andrew Davis © Dario Acosta

Berlioz – L’Enfance du Christ

In many ways Berlioz’s ‘sacred trilogy’ L’enfance du Christ occupies a unique position in its composer’s output. It began its concert existence as a sort of practical joke, when Berlioz introduced the Shepherds’ Farewell into a concert pseudonymously. He attributed it to a minor seventeenth-century French ‘master’ and chortled with joy when one critic commented with approbation that it was precisely the sort of thing that Berlioz would have found it impossible to write. He then expanded the score by adding further and more characteristically Berliozian sections and found in the end that quite unexpectedly he had a critical and commercial success on his hands. This composition also turned into something far removed from a straightforward oratorio, with even more quasi-operatic stage directions than The Damnation of Faust and a good number of descriptive marches and dances, especially in the first part set at Herod’s court which was the last to be written.

Then, too, the work occupies a unique place in his output as the only major work for which Berlioz wrote his own text without any literary model – Shakespeare, Goethe, Vergil, Byron, and so on – in mind. The characters may be Biblical in origin (and not all of them), but their dialogue is entirely original to the composer, as are some of the dramatic situations. It is here, paradoxically for a composer who for the greater part of his life made his living as a writer of prose, that Berlioz is unexpectedly flat-footed. Take one example. The narrator at the beginning of Part III, as the Holy Family arrive in Egypt, has the pedestrian statement (literally translated from the French): ‘The poor servant of the holy family, the donkey, in the desert had already fallen’. When the work came to be translated into German by the composer’s friends and fellow-composers Peter Cornelius and Felix Weingartner, they elaborated on this bald resumé. The English translator John Berrhoff (who appears from internal evidence to have worked from the German rather than the original French) produces a much more circumstantial ‘The faithful beast that bore the wanderers, over-burdened, tired and faint and parched with thirst, had died along the road’. It is certainly clear that Berlioz would have expected performances for Anglophone audiences to be given in an English translation, and indeed the Second Part of the trilogy is dedicated to the ‘Director of the Musical Union in London’. I would have imagined that at least during the nineteenth century more performances would have been given in English than in French, given the popularity of Berlioz in the former country; and it seems odd perhaps that a performance given by entirely Anglophone singers to an entirely Anglophone audience should be given in French. But this was a rather special occasion, a concert given to launch a BBC weekend celebrating the 150th anniversary of the death of Berlioz, and thus rather special circumstances applied.

And indeed this was also a rather special performance. We were advised that three of the soloists featured here had already given the work in Melbourne with Sir Andrew Davis, and the confidence of the singing was indeed exceptional. Even Dame Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams, saddled with the generally rather placid roles of Mary and Joseph, struck sparks in their moments of desperation as they arrived in an inhospitable Egypt; Andrew Staples was superlative as the narrator, delivering pinging high notes in his description of their flight; Matthew Brook was also superb doubling as the dream-haunted Herod and the welcoming Ishmaelite father, although one might have welcomed a little more sonority on some of the extremely low notes that Berlioz asks him to reach. Herod is of course the only character in the story with any opportunity for real operatic passion, and Brook rose to his moments with a real sense of rage. His Ishmaelite, with the business propensity to organise a carpentry business with Joseph (what happens after the partnership splits up?), carefully avoided any of the sense of sentimentality that hovers so dangerously on the fringes of the score in places. Mention should also be made of Huw Ynyr and Tomos Jones, stepping forward from the ranks of the chorus to take on the two peripheral roles of the centurion and Polydorus, who were by no means out-fazed by their illustrious fellow-soloists.

The chorus indeed was another reason for the special nature of this performance, even though their contribution is rather limited for what might be regarded as your normal ‘oratorio’. In his score, Berlioz goes to extreme lengths (with substantial footnotes) to explain how he wishes the effect of the offstage angels to be conveyed to the audience. He includes instructions for the realisation of a ‘fade’ at the end of Part I which anticipates in many ways the specified technique of Holst at the end of The Planets, an effect that the latter is often credited with originating. Later Berlioz also employs the contrast between onstage and offstage chorus in an epilogue which anticipates many similar passages in British choral writing – Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, Holst’s Hymn of Jesus and Britten’s War Requiem to cite but a few examples. Here Andrew Staples moved to the back of the stage so that his contributions to the texture merged perfectly with the choral tenors singing a third below, just one of the touches which confirmed how much careful consideration had gone into the preparation of this performance. The free BBC programme book, with complete text and translations in both English and Welsh which included Berlioz’s peculiar directions for imaginary stage action, made sure that the audience missed none of this.

Berlioz’s small orchestra (at least by Berliozian standards, with trombones dismissed after Part I) sounded ideal in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall, which can be over-taxed by louder romantic scores. During the trio with which the Ishmaelites entertain the Holy Family, Matthew Featherstone and Jenny Farley (flutes) along with Katherine Thomas (harp) produced the purest chamber music. Sir Andrew, after having established the initial tempo, rested and allowed the melancholy tones of the music (with its skittish central section) to produce its own lambent results. Not that the dramatic effects were stinted, as can seem to be the fashion nowadays with some conductors who view Berlioz as a classicist pure and simple. The romantic elements which Berlioz regarded as the very lifeblood of his music were here given full rein. That gave the inset ‘archaic’ elements – the trio, the Shepherd’s Farewell, and the modal and very un-Bachian fugue – almost an air which anticipated the neo-classical developments of the mid-twentieth century, with just the slightest suspicion of Berliozian technique to add piquancy. This is a work where even the subtle shift of an accidental – as in the closing bars of the unaccompanied chorus at the end – can speak volumes. And speak volumes it did.

So this was a rousing opening to the BBC survey of ‘Berlioz: The Ultimate Romantic’ even though the Radio 3 schedules for the remainder of the weekend contained regrettably few of the composer’s major works – The Trojans, The Damnation of Faust, Romeo and Juliet, Benvenuto Cellini, the Requiem or the Te Deum – other than in excerpts, if at all. As I have noted, the Hoddinott Hall acoustic was ideal for this performance, where the larger spaces of St David’s Hall in Cardiff would have diffused the sound perhaps unacceptably. The unfortunate downside of this was that not all those wishing to attend could do so: the auditorium, even with additional seating, was absolutely sold out. I am pleased to note that the concert was not only broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 but will also be available through the usual streaming services for a further month and as a television podcast on the orchestra’s own website. Those who love this work, and those who are more sceptical about what is obviously a maverick in the composer’s output, will both wish to hear the performance in one or another medium.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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