Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: L’enfance du Christ
PERFORMER: Michèle Lagrange (soprano), Jean-Luc Viala (tenor), Michel Piquemal (baritone), Fernand Bernardi (bass); Choeur Regional Vittoria de l’Ile de France, Maîtrise de Radio France, Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553650-51
From the melodrama of Herod to the delicately limned scenes in Bethlehem, from domesticity in Egypt to the theological epilogue, and framing the story through a narrator, Berlioz ranges at will through dramatic styles: thus L’enfance du Christ is never easy to bring off. The new Naxos version is value for money, but cannot match the best in the field. Viala is an acceptable narrator, though less sensitive than Paul Agnew for Herreweghe, and Lagrange is a tender Marie. The coarse vigour of Piquemal may suit Herod, but is unfortunately too typical of the singing in general. Casadesus has the measure of the score, bar a few dubious tempi: the third stanza of the ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ is a lot, not (as marked) ‘a little’ slower, and the following narration is despatched too briskly, in a clipped manner also prevalent in the overture to Part II. Distant angels’ voices, taken by boys, are beautiful although Mary and Joseph must have found it difficult to understand what they are saying. The full choral sound is somewhat murky. The obvious benchmark for Berlioz remains Colin Davis, whose performance is reissued in an inexpensive box by Philips (see my review in November 1998); but for a more recent recording available singly I would choose Herreweghe’s version, despite its dryish sound. This choice is not dependent on the use of period instruments, vivid as are the resulting colours, for he achieves a luminous clarity in the choral epilogue, where instruments are not used. Julian Rushton