Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ; Sara la baigneuse; Hélène; La belle voyageuse; Quartetto e coro dei maggi, Chant sacré

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: L’enfance du Christ; Sara la baigneuse; Hélène; La belle voyageuse; Quartetto e coro dei maggi, Chant sacré
PERFORMER: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), François Le Roux (baritone), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Philip Cokorinos (bass-baritone); Montreal SO & Chorus/Charles Dutoit
CATALOGUE NO: 458 915-2
Dutoit resumes his competent Berlioz series with a generally attractive L’enfance du Christ. This oratorio, which Berlioz unexpectedly wrote after deciding to abandon composition, is better served than most of his choral works, with fine versions by Colin Davis, Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner and Matthew Best. I choose Gardiner as the benchmark because the vocal contribution is particularly good, and despite the lack of ‘fillers’. Dutoit offers the lovely La belle voyageuse (an over-vibrant performance by Susanne Mentzer) and four engaging choral works including, surely, the premiere recording of an angels’ chorus mysteriously entitled ‘Quartet and chorus of the magi’.

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Unfortunately, the gem of the collection, Sara la baigneuse, is stodgily sung: its three choirs provide too many voices, not spatially separated and lacking the transparency abundantly supplied by the orchestra. It also suffers from the besetting sin of modern Berlioz performance, inconsistent observance of dynamic nuance. L’enfance receives a sterling, dramatic reading, with an admirably dark-voiced Herod (Cokorinos) and an eloquent narrator in Ainsley, who also sings in the austerely beautiful Chant sacré. Graham and Le Roux make an attractive Holy Family, with the dramatic scene of the arrival at Saïs strongly focused. It is a pity that the wonderful ‘Repos de la sainte famille’ at the end of Part II is considerably too fast. Otherwise tempi are well judged, although one could use more flexibility than Dutoit seems willing to allow; his chorus, at times fiercely metronomic, struggles to match the transcendence of Gardiner’s in the sublime unaccompanied close. Julian Rushton