Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: L’enfance du Christ
PERFORMER: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Yann Beuron (tenor), William Dazeley (baritone), Matthew Rose, Peter Rose (bass); Tenebrae Choir; London SO/Colin Davis

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CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0606 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Here’s a live Enfance with a promising cast, SACD surround-sound, and Davis conducting – enough for most Berliozians. Yet having already recorded two excellent versions of this intimate, gently luminous masterpiece already recorded, what more can Davis add?

Not improvement, perhaps, but a different approach. Those predecessors were notably warm and glowing; here his reading seems more measured and translucent, more classical. His soloists are mostly young, clear voices. Certainly, they are less expressive than the singers Sir Thomas Allen and Dame Janet Baker on his earlier recording, but they are nonetheless in keeping with Sir Colin’s latest approach. Matthew Rose’s Herod is striking, a black-voiced ‘part to tear a cat in’ indeed, despite the occasional uncertain lower note. Karin Cargill, if not as heart-breaking as Baker, is a wonderfully delicate and simple St Mary alongside Dazeley’s restrained Joseph and Peter Rose’s benevolently resonant Ishmaelite. Beuron, probably today’s finest French lyric tenor, gives the performance an essential idiomatic core in his Narration. The choice of Tenebrae raised a few eyebrows; their glossy ‘hi-tec’ precision could sound sterile in such warm music. Nevertheless under Davis’s hand the choruses seem to work, dramatically alert and glowing as stained glass, the angelic messages skin-pricklingly ethereal in the rarefied atmosphere of James Mallinson’s surround-sound.

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I admire Matthew Best’s highly dramatic Enfance, and keep a soft spot for Philippe Herreweghe’s, uneven but unusually French-flavoured; but Davis’s characterful second recording remains my favourite. It’s presently unavailable, though; and this remarkably fresh and vivid new reading (especially on SACD) is almost equally impressive. Michael Scott Rohan