Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Hänssler faszinationmusik
WORKS: L’enfance du Christ
PERFORMER: Christiane Oelze (soprano), Mark Padmore, Frank Bossert (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Ralf Lukas (bass-baritone), Mikhael Nikiforov, Bernhard Hartmann (bass); Stuttgart SWR Vocal Ensemble &RSO/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.091
L’enfance du Christ coalesced into the form in which we know it today in 1854, having had a somewhat piecemeal process of creation. Growing from a short organ piece into a picturesque tableau for small orchestra and chorus, and finally becoming a substantial tripartite oratorio, it presents a conundrum to any conductor. How do you accommodate both the intimate and the epic within the same reading? Norrington, eliciting a commendably tight, vibrato-less sound from the Stuttgart orchestra, tends to emphasise the intimate over the epic, the rhythmic over the sentimental. Detail is extremely lucid and speeds are springier than most other readings (which for my money is something of a blessing for the mawkish ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ at the heart of the piece). What I missed throughout this performance, however, was a true sense of orchestral drama. As so often in Berlioz, the orchestral writing carries a myriad of potent messages, underlining and colouring the drama, at times secretly, at times overtly. Other performances of the work enter this expressive drama more fully, and make the orchestra as eloquent as the soloists themselves (one can’t help but admire Dutoit’s reading on Decca for this reason).

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As far as the soloists are concerned, Christiane Oelze’s Mary is girlish and winsome, quite unlike the more maternal quality one often encounters in this role. Maltman is a suave Joseph, but other soloists are unexceptional. Padmore’s Narrator tends to belt at us when a more level-headed approach would have been welcome. Overall, there are warmer-hearted readings than this one, though the ‘early’ sound-world and cleanliness are refreshing. The live concert recording comes across well. William Whitehead