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The non-audience space in the church was almost entirely occupied by the orchestra (not a lavish one by this composer's standards), and the chorus were squashed into two groups at the back left and right, which did not make for perfect blending from the audience's point of view.

However, the youthful choir was well-drilled, and the also-young soloists (Christopher Ovenden, Stephen Cviic, Andrew Tinkler, Matthew Sharp and Miranda Rogers) were all excellent. For me, the bass-baritone Matthew Sharp stood out particularly. His rich-voiced singing of the part of Herod was invested with powerful dramatic characterisation and real psychological insight. Berlioz's Herod is not simply evil; he is a fearful, weak, Macbeth-like character who is easily swayed by the soothsayers, with their suggestion of the mass-execution of children as the only way to preserve his power.

In the music of Herod we also hear what is wrong with Berlioz's style in this work. Too often the music lapses into a pattern of a vocal statement, followed by a 'picturesque' orchestral illustration of this idea, followed by another vocal phrase, in such a way that we soon realise that the music is never going to 'take off' in the way that song needs to. Berlioz's concern in The Childhood is primarily with that aspect of music mentioned in the text when the Ishmaelite father welcomes the Holy Family in Saïs after their long trudge in the desert: 'With the beauty of sound my children will enrapture your ears'. Often the composer seems to be dwelling on the intrinsic interest of static orchestral timbres, such as the 'dead' vibrato-free pianissimo strings in slow single notes which precede the final chorus -- somewhat reminiscent of the strange trombone and flute passages in the Requiem. This dwelling on slow sounds, without much contrasting material in terms of traditional polyphonic-melodic vocal writing, combined with the disconnected, episodic structure of the piece, in three parts and numerous 'scenes', makes The Childhood, despite being a full evening of music, seem like an insubstantial musical meal. The most memorable elements are the most picturesque: the marching bass strings of the Roman soldiers, the neighing oboes of the 'shepherds' farewell', the Ishmaelites' harp.

As usual, the singer in the role of Herod in Part 1 took the role of the Ishmaelite father in Part 3. Matthew Sharp did put a different shirt on to show he was no longer representing the tyrant; however, the mind of this audience member entertained briefly an amusing idea not in line with the gospel story: I did wonder whether the Holy Family had walked into a fiendish trap, and if the fake 'father' would be unmasked. This did not happen, as the father engaged in suburban banter with Joseph about how Jesus was a charming name. Following this episode, the Holy Family are entertained by the Ismaelite family ostensibly playing a flute and harp trio (the second best-known music of the work), in which Berlioz made no attempt to emulate middle-eastern idioms at all, but produced something curiously European eighteenth-century-sounding. On this occasion I could have done with more ethereal harp-playing.

Berlioz wrote a severe test of tuning for unaccompanied choir in the final 'mystical chorus', and here the Elysian singers came up trumps. They, like their counterparts in the 1863 performance (according to Berlioz), probably did not drop in pitch by one quarter of a semitone over several minutes of chromatic music, accompanying the expressively-sung final music of the narrator (tenor Christopher Ovenden), and the men produced an impressively, luminously soft and uniform final 'amen'.

Copyright © 18 December 2003 David Arditti, London UK






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