Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ never will have the wide audience appeal of the best-known oratorio-style works, but it’s full of fine music for soloists and chorus as well as for the orchestra. Perhaps it’s because the piece wasn’t originally conceived as a whole–it was kind of stuck together in clumps, working from the inside out; perhaps it’s because the text is in French; perhaps because most of the long first part is about Herod–Herod dreaming, Herod singing, Herod yelling; or perhaps it’s because the work really wants to be an opera, and has many moments of promise in that regard, but then falls back into, well, what do we really call this? Berlioz’s designation is “Trilogie sacrée” (Sacred trilogy), but suffice it to say that it’s kind of an oratorio with some extended orchestral sections, a couple of lovely choruses, including the popular “Shepherds’ Farewell” (which Berlioz wrote before he had the idea for the larger work), and some full-fledged arias, all of it lasting around 90 minutes (for more extensive comments on the work, please refer to my review of the Dutoit/Montréal performance on Decca–type Q2428 in Search Reviews).
Besides the appropriately warm-colored orchestral tone, clearly articulated, well-balanced choral singing, and dramatically sensitive all-around ensemble work, this performance is distinguished by the first-rate singing of tenor/narrator Paul Agnew. Each time he takes the stage–especially in his second-part aria that follows the Shepherds chorus–he not only impresses with his vocal beauty, but also with his characterful expression. Véronique Gens is excellent as well–and the chorus typically acquits itself with its usual technical aplomb and unmannered musicality, with a particularly ethereal Angels chorus in Part 1, a justly moving Shepherds’ Farewell, and, best of all, a gorgeous rendering of the work’s final prayer. The sound for this live recording (made in 1997) is perfectly fine, yet in comparison to the reference Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir (Erato) version, it lacks that production’s amazing presence and detail. In fact, although the Gardiner was recorded in 1987 it sounds fresher, more immediate, more vibrant than many of today’s highest-tech, super-audio efforts. And while Philippe Herreweghe gives a well-paced and engagingly understated interpretation, Gardiner’s slightly grander and more nuanced version, which also boasts excellent soloists and is still available at mid-price, remains just that much more impressive both as an overall experience and for its individual moments.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: Monteverdi Choir/Lyon Opera Orchestra/Gardiner (Erato), Cluytens (EMI)
HECTOR BERLIOZ - L'Enfance du Christ Op. 25