Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: L’enfance du Christ
PERFORMER: Véronique Gens (soprano), Paul Agnew (tenor), Laurent Naouri (baritone), Olivier Lallouette, Frédéric Caton (bass) La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale, Orchestre des Champs Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
This live recording was made in Montreux’s Auditorium Stravinski; its dryness is ill-suited to parts of Berlioz’s oratorio. Otherwise this is as good as any available recording, perhaps better: what it lacks in ambience it makes up for in colour. After a slow opening narrative, Herreweghe sets judicious tempi and is not afraid to bend them, but some dynamic nuances are underplayed. The period instruments’ sonority is matched by well-focused singing from a largely francophone cast, but Paul Agnew’s steady, expressive narrator never seems out of place. Véronique Gens (Marie) and Olivier Lallouette (Joseph) are well matched in their duets, particularly their pleas for shelter in Egypt; the grainy bass of Frédéric Caton, who offers them shelter, makes an effective contrast. I wish Laurent Naouri had not ended the role of Herod, which he sings well, on an unauthorised high note. The temptation is obvious: half-way through Part 1, he and the brass simply disappear. The heart of the work lies in the woodwind, and this can hardly have sounded better since it was last performed on contemporary instruments. Julian Rushton