LSO/Davis, Barbican, London
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Wednesday 06 December 2006
Quite how or why Berlioz's exquisite L'Enfance du Christ came to launch a series entitled "Choral Blockbusters" is anyone's guess, but Sir Colin Davis and his worshipful company of performers made it as mystical an experience as we have any right to expect, and there was definitely something in the air.
Not, I hasten to add, the news that Ian Bostridge, the star soloist, was unwell and had to withdraw at short notice. That initially came as a blow, and didn't seem like a good position from which to work the requisite magic. But his replacement, Yann Beuron, did just that - and to have a Frenchman in the role of Narrator added a certain frisson. Beuron has the clearest, most pristine and welcoming of lyric tenor voices, and while I can imagine Bostridge pointing the storytelling a little more keenly, I cannot imagine a more rapt or humane sense of wonder than that which Beuron so readily conveyed.
There was wonder, too, from Tenebrae, the beautifully modulated chamber choir. To hear them in "The Shepherds' Farewell" - the sound so poised, so even, the harmonies so balanced, the distinctions in colour and dynamics so subtly varied between verses - was transporting.
Elsewhere, the quiet illumination of Berlioz's tableaux brought an aura of chasteness from Davis and his forces. The scene of the stable at Bethlehem was bathed in a slightly surreal light, oboe hovering like the guiding star, and the voices of Mary and Joseph - the excellent Karen Cargill and William Dazeley - well-matched and all the more comforting for following so directly upon the musical contortions of Herod and his Soothsayers.
For Herod's dream, Berlioz avoids "demon king" histrionics, and, with almost compassionate restraint, has his cellos and violas trace out Herod's torment. Matthew Rose brought a glimpse of humanity to this solo, amply supported by the LSO strings.
The richness of Berlioz's aural imagination, so often drawing upon a mere handful of instruments, was clearly a source of pleasure to Davis, but it was his choir and his Narrator who held us in wonderment at the mystical suspensions of the final chorus. Blockbuster? No. Awesome? Yes.
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