Our critics give their verdicts on the week's big release; Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ Corydon Singers & Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion CDA 66991/2)

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The Narrator tells us that a child has been born, that the weak are filled with hope, and the powerful with fear. On the surface of it, L'Enfance du Christ is everyone's first Bible class with Berlioz seeming to take the child's perspective in music of innocence, wonder and expectation - music of the utmost concision and restraint. It's almost as if the enormity of this child's significance were too great to be expressed in any other terms but these.

What could be simpler and yet more momentous than the sequence of mysterious string unisons that preface the Epilogue, stretching out before us, punctuating the silence like so many unanswered questions? Matthew Best's Corydon players imbue them with an extraordinary intensity. That's the challenge of L'Enfance: realising the full import of the emotional subtext without distorting its beautifully composed surfaces.

Best and his team maintain that balance to perfection. The "Song of Herod" is full-on "operatic", the burden of power movingly, humanely conveyed in Alastair Miles's resolute bass, but equally in the heart-aching inflections of Berlioz's cellos. And what a masterstroke to turn all that emotion in on itself as Herod relates his dream to the soothsayers and the still, chill voice of the clarinet once more murders sleep. More masterful still is the dramatic leap from the climax of this scene, the moment of Herod's terrible edict, to the Nativity itself. Again, who can say exactly what it is that gives this scene its inner-light, its heightened sense of rapture: the answer lies somewhere between the letter of the score and the tender voicings of Jean Rigby, Gerald Finley and one plaintive oboe.

No previous recording of L'Enfance du Christ has moved me like this one. The choral singing is a joy, the orchestral playing poised, resourceful, so aware. Technically, this version is magical, exploring the full theatrical potential of shifting perspectives: like the distant "Hosannas" lighting up the night sky at the close of Part 1. In a word: heavenly.

EDWARD SECKERSON

Best says he wanted to bring out the "operatic" side of L'Enfance du Christ - to "strip away the rather pious `oratorio' approach in favour of something more human and dramatic". It sounds like an excellent idea: whatever else L'Enfance might be, it certainly isn't a stodgy Victorian sermon in music. The changing microphone perspectives are quite effective, and never overdone, though I think I might have preferred a less etherealised approach in the final chorus; it's wonderful music - and rather well sung too. This isn't supposed to be a heavenly chorus; the choir speaks for us.

But the performance itself strikes me as anything but operatic. It's spacious, expansive, atmospheric, often very beautiful, but more timeless than dramatic. That's not really a problem, though, when there's singing like that of John Aler as the Narrator, Gwynne Howell as the Ishmaelite "Pere de Famille" who rescues the Holy Family (not one of the most gripping parts of the story, surprisingly, but persuasively performed) and especially Alastair Miles as Herod - the opening phrase of his aria "O misere des rois!" is heavy with a sense of the curse of power, and magnificently phrased.

Jean Rigby's intonation isn't quite secure at her first entry, but she makes a lovely sound, and blends very effectively with Gerald Finley's Joseph. As you'd expect, given Best's credentials as a choral conductor, the choir is technically and expressively first-rate, and the Corydon Orchestra - a much more recent creation - plays impressively too. But it is the most other-worldly L'Enfance du Christ I've ever heard. If the idea appeals, don't hesitate.

STEPHEN JOHNSON

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