Warmth and Spontaneity
DAVID THOMPSON reviews a performance
in Westminster Cathedral, London UK
on 12 December 2003 of
'L'enfance du Christ' by Berlioz
On this occasion, the musical knight named Davis, directing a major work by Berlioz was not the esteemed Sir Colin, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Conductor-Laureate, Sir Andrew, making a welcome return to the London music scene. The work, L'enfance du Christ, was described in the BBC's Concert Diary as 'A festive offering'. I think the word 'seasonal' better describes it, for L'enfance does not deliver the in-your-face trumpeting and drumming that characterises much of Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium; it inhabits, for the most part, a more mysterious and serene sound-world.
L'enfance could hardly be described as a religious work, though the humanist Berlioz clearly viewed his subject-matter with affection, and invested it with music of often ineffable sweetness and tenderness, especially in the reflective Part 2. By contrast, the outer panels of the triptych are closer to the world of opera than that of oratorio. The 'cast' is certainly peopled with familiar characters -- Herod, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds -- but the 'plot' has been considerably thickened from the fragmentary biblical narratives, and includes a rather jolly-sounding four-star lifestyle in Egyptian exile, not to mention first-class entertainment from the prodigiously musically-gifted children of the benevolent 'Head of the Family'. It's essentially a secular tale that happens to have some sacred characters on board.
The experience of L'enfance comes across rather like those medieval and renaissance paintings of the Holy Family, depicted opulently and expensively dressed, in rude good health, residing within very upmarket contemporary architecture. Heard in the wonderfully exotic setting of Westminster Cathedral, where the night-lit interior conjured up a similarly surreal setting against the illusion of a night sky, the ambient effect was utterly magical.
To my mind, the genius of Berlioz is that the music never comes across as 'composed', but emerges as the unique experience of the moment. It takes comparable genius to realise this effect in performance, which is why satisfactory Berlioz experiences are so elusive, though we in London are rather spoiled in that respect. Sir Andrew, let me affirm, has, like his revered namesake, the special gift of being able to draw the music into freshly-minted experiential reality. He led us seamlessly and inevitably through a magical hour-and-a-half, clearly bringing out the essence of what was deeply felt within his musical soul. It was a subtle, mysterious and very French experience. Parts of the work, as for example, the celebrated 'Shepherd's Farewell', can, in the wrong hands, come over as sickly sweet. Not so here. This was musical amandes sucrées, emphatically not chocolat blanc.
Copyright © 16 December 2003
David Thompson, Eastwood, Essex, UK