Berlioz's L’enfance du Christ (The childhood of Christ) was premiered under his baton at Paris’s Salle Herz on 10 December 1854. It was a major success, with many people unable to buy tickets and the audience giving the composer-conductor a warm-hearted ovation.
Among those present were fellow composers Verdi, Gounod and Ambroise Thomas and the poet Alfred de Vigny. Berlioz later wrote of ‘encores, recalls, interruptions in the middle of numbers due to the emotion of the audience, tears – nothing was lacking […] Not in Germany, Russia nor England have I ever witnessed greater fervour’. By the time two further performances had been given the work had earned Berlioz several thousand francs.
The best recording of Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ
Soloists; Tenebrae, London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
It is in terms of this vivid quality that Colin Davis’s third recording of the piece scores particularly highly. A devoted interpreter of the composer’s music, of which he was certainly the greatest champion in his day, Davis undertook his final Berlioz cycle as the London Symphony Orchestra’s music director – a post he held from 1995-2006. We named the London Symphony Orchestra as one of the best orchestras in the world.
By then he had already made two recordings of the piece – the first in 1960, with the Goldsborough Orchestra and soloists including Elsie Morrison, Peter Pears and John Cameron (Decca); and the second in 1976 with the LSO and principals including Janet Baker, Eric Tappy and Jules Bastin (Philips). Both of these have much to recommend them, but the result of a lifetime’s experience of the score and the impetus of a live recording in the Barbican Hall give this final version from 2006 particular electricity.
Davis brings lightness and lucidity to Berlioz’s score – ‘it’s very delicate chamber music as a whole’, he once said – but his performance also reflects the work’s operatic or even (as Davis also suggested) cinematic quality, aided by Yann Beuron’s crisp, native French-speaking Narrator, while the small scene between Beuron’s Centurion and Peter Rose’s Polydorus is unusually striking.
Matthew Rose supplies a dark-souled Herod – an individual at the very end of his tether, sombre in expression. Karen Cargill defines Mary with impeccable steadiness and tonal warmth, while William Dazeley responds with a Joseph of equivalent quality and Peter Rose evokes the hospitable Ishmaelite Father in the final scene with a broad generosity of tone.
The luxurious choir is Tenebrae, whose thorough musicianship and ample yet varied tone form an ideal combination; Davis also discovers an authentic rustic quality to complement the choral richness of the famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’.
Throughout the performance conductor and orchestra enter enthusiastically into the characteristically Berlioz’s distinctive, subtle and complex soundworld, with its rich palette of carefully selected colours and a fineness of detail that rewards focussed listening.
While there’s never any sense of hurry in his interpretation, Davis nonetheless always manages to keep the score on the move, even in the delightful playfulness of the trio for two flutes and harp in the final scene: this is a point when – in the wrong hands – the score can seem to sag. Colin Davis’s are very much the right hands.
Other great recordings of Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ
Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestra des Champs-Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonia Mundi HMG 501632/33
Recorded with the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées in 1997, Herreweghe’s approach also offers a reminder that Berlioz was a great opera composer, instilling his diverse scenes with a purposeful sense of development and constantly observant of the score’s smaller points, in which the choral contributions are perfectly scaled.
Paul Agnew savours the Narrator’s text while Laurent Naouri provides a psychologically probing Herod. Véronique Gens’s Mary is tender and gentle, and Olivier Lallouette’s Joseph exhibits a real sense of desperation when rejected by the citizens of Sais.
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Alastair Miles (bass), Gerald Finley (baritone), John Aler (tenor), Gwynne Howell (bass), Peter Evans (tenor), Robert Poulton (baritone), St Paul’s Cathedral Choristers, Corydon Singers & Orchestra/Matthew Best
Though some may find the acoustic over-resonant, Matthew Best’s 1994 performance with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra maintains a sense of drama without tipping over into the overly theatrical.
Alastair Miles is a grand-scale Herod and Jean Rigby’s Mary conveys maternal warmth and suggests real anxiety when she and Gerald Finley’s perfectly matched Joseph find themselves unwelcome refugees in Egypt, where Gwynne Howell’s vocal largesse as the Ishmaelite Father embodies his generosity of spirit.
Christiane Oelze (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Mark Padmore (tenor), Ralf Lukas (bass), Bernhard Hartmann (bass), Frank Bossert (tenor), Southwest German Radio Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington
In this 2002 recording, Norrington and his Stuttgart forces capture the atmosphere of every scene, and shape the score with insight and tenderness. Mark Padmore is the plangent-toned, interpretatively concentrated Narrator, with Christiane Oelze a limpid, fleshy-voiced Mary, Christopher Maltman a fluent and lyrical Joseph, and Ralf Lukas an almost melancholy Herod – viewed, as it were, from the inside out. The result is a consistently characterful performance.
And one to avoid…
Jane Henschel (contralto), Yann Beuron (tenor), Phillipe Rouillon (bass), Gabor Breta (Baritone), Eric Martin-Bonnett (bass), EuropaChorAkademie, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Sylvain Cambreling
Glor Classics GC08131
Sylvain Cambreling’s 2009 recording again employs Yann Beuron as his Narrator, though the remaining soloists are not in the same league: Jane Henschel’s heavyweight Mary is relentless, while the Joseph is woolly, the Father sometimes unsteady, and the Herod inclined to blowsiness.
Nor is the Belgian conductor as pictorially vivid as his colleagues in painting the atmosphere of individual scenes, while overall rhythmic control and precision of ensemble are both less consistent.
Words by: George Hall