BERLIOZ L’enfance du Christ (Davis)
Made in tandem with a series of concert performances in Melbourne last year, Andrew Davis’s new recording of L’enfance du Christ takes its time, rather curiously, to find its feet. Berlioz’s sacred trilogy is difficult to get right in performance, largely because the relationship between the theatrical and the contemplative needs to be carefully calibrated in order for the work to succeed, and it is a while before Davis fully establishes the requisite balance. The opening narration, beautifully voiced by Andrew Staples, is strikingly introverted and rapt, but the scenes in Jerusalem that follow are in some respects too understated. The nocturnal march for the Roman soldiers carries little sense of threat, while Herod’s insomniac agony isn’t as intense and unsettling as it might be. The soloists are also less than ideal here. Shane Laurencev’s Polydorus blusters, and Matthew Brook’s sonorous Herod seems curiously disengaged in ‘Ô misère des rois!’, though his singing subsequently gathers strength as he vituperatively orders the Massacre of the Innocents.
Once we reach the stable in Bethlehem, however, Davis’s conducting acquires greater focus. Everything is now beautifully paced and shaped, the dramatic and the devotional brought into careful alignment. Time briefly seems to stand still in ‘Le repos de la Sainte Famille’, and there’s real tension when the Holy Family arrive in Saïs, only to meet with rejection from the city’s xenophobic inhabitants, followed by a palpable surge of relief when they finally find refuge among the Ishmaelites. The solo singing is comparably more persuasive, too. Though not quite equalling the sublimity of Anne Sofie von Otter for John Eliot Gardiner (Erato, 1/98) or Janet Baker on Colin Davis’s second recording (Philips, 1/98), Sasha Cooke makes a radiant Mary opposite Roderick Williams’s tenderly solicitous Joseph. Staples, awed by the tale he is telling, is consistently good. And Brook really comes into his own as the Ishmaelite Father, singing with deep sincerity and fervour.
The Melbourne Symphony, meanwhile, sound very warm and plush, perhaps a bit too much so for some tastes in this work, but their playing is beautifully articulated and detailed. The set’s principal strength, however, lies in the choral singing, which is superb throughout in its clarity, balance and dynamic control: ‘L’adieu des bergers’ sounds ravishing; the careful shading of the unaccompanied closing chorus takes your breath away; and we finally realise that after that indifferent opening, the performance has gradually evolved into something profoundly touching. Not a first-choice recording for the work, perhaps, though the best of it is very fine indeed.