L'Enfance du Christ, Cadogan Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

"The problem with Paris," moaned Berlioz, "is I never get a decent performance: my L'Enfance du Christ gets murdered. In Strasbourg people wept at my final mystic chorus; I love it when my music evokes tears."

There were moments in this English Chamber Orchestra performance of Berlioz's Christmas oratorio, focusing on Herod's machinations and the flight of the Holy Family, when Berlioz might have wept - in frustration. But not the final chorus; the serene, unaccompanied bars revealed the otherwise ropy Tallis Chamber Choir at its best. Their magical pianissimo, and the gentle intoning of the tenor narrator, Yann Beuron, achieved a spiritual uplift largely absent from the opening scenes.

There was a nice piquancy to the Nocturnal March, and the excellent Herod (bass-baritone Roland Wood) brought this heart-wrenching oratorio a dramatic allure that eluded it elsewhere. Jan Latham-Koenig directed in such a fussy manner at the start that early scenes seemed, at worst, pedestrian. Doubts hung over the tuning of chorus and upper strings; the choir's words were obscure. Even the beautiful duet for Mary and Joseph lacked any spark (although Simona Mihai's blue-clad Mary looked the part); the soloists' delivery was frankly dull.

But then the superb launch to Part II, in cellos and basses, then woodwind, achieved a scented pastoral feel. Latham-Koenig took the Shepherds' Farewell chorus at a healthy lick, to advantage. There was a more generous, expansive feel of line, which had been crucially ignored earlier.

It is the compassion of the Ishmaelite father, who prevents the Holy Family being rejected as "lepers and vagabonds", which lends the last section its emotional intensity. Roland Wood's Ishmaelite proved as engaging as his scheming Tetrarch, and Gérard Théruel's Joseph came good here. A rather desultory chorus yielded to a thrilling orchestral scherzo, and an entrancing oriental dance. But the moment to eclipse all was the launch of the final scene, soft as a whisper, with single notes magically passed round the orchestra; a stunning sequence, which with the rapt farewell bars made it all worthwhile.

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