Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ ~ Davis
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Described as a `sacred trilogy', Berlioz's oratorio L'enfance du Christ began as a short piece called Shepherds' Farewell. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus and the journey of the Holy Family as they escape Bethlehem and head across Egypt to the city of Saïs. Unlike many of the composer's more flamboyant works, it is an exquisite and gentle composition scored for relatively small forces.
This is Colin Davis' third recording of Berlioz's great oratorio and it may be the best. Under his baton, the music flows without undue haste or stodgy piety. Berlioz was a consummate dramatist, even in this uncharacteristic work that often hearkens back to archaic musical forms to evoke the Biblical story. The singers are all outstanding, especially tenor Yann Beuron as the Narrator, whose pure tones and sincere delivery bring continuity to the tripartite structure. Karen Cargill as Mary and William Dazeley as Joseph bring welcome interpretive simplicity to their roles, while Matthew Rose and Peter Rose bring their ample bass instruments to such key roles such as Herod and the Householder. The LSO always plays at its best for Davis, and here it is a major attraction given the extensive orchestral sections of L'enfance du Christ. The LSO winds are especially dazzling, their "Marche Nocturne" section beautifully shaped and colored, and the remarkable inventiveness of the Part Three trio of two flutes and harp is fully brought to life. The Tenebrae Choir is as wonderful; its singing of the "Shepherd's Farewell" moving in its dignified elegance. --Dan DavisSee all Editorial Reviews
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The 2 disc set is excellent value and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
I also take issue with the other reviewer's comments about Karen Cargill, the Mary (or Marie). For my money, she's a wonderful Berlioz singer - e.g., her performance as Anna in the Metropolitan's production of Les Troyens and her outstanding recording of Les Nuits d'Éte (also on the LSO label), and I think she excels here. Unfortunately, the other singers drag her down (particularly the Joseph, whose vibrato was extremely off-putting), and in my very humble opinion Sir Colin didn't help much. As with his recording of the Verdi Requiem a few years ago, even a brilliant conductor has an off day once in a while.
Instead, he gives us a seasoned, quietly emotional reading that becomes deeper and more moving as it proceeds. Charles Munch held sway with his 1956 recording on RCA because of its impetuosity. Davis holds sway here with his authority. Tempos are fairly measured, but that's a superficial thing. What matters is that the music remains engrossing from beginning to end. The singers, even those without a French background, handle the language well (although the Mary and Joseph are comparatively weak singers), and the LSO, caught in wonderful sound, play with total conviction, perhaps more than on any previous version. The Amazon reviewer may have something here when he calls this autumnal reading the best of Davis's three recordings.