Our Lord's two flights into Egypt

L'enfance Du Christ | Lso/BarbicanThomas Tallis Society | Royal Naval CollegeLondon
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The Independent Culture

Greenwich's towering pair of Wren domes, three centuries older than Richard Rogers effort, made a timely setting for the Thomas Tallis Society's New Year gala concert. Timely because the former Royal Naval College has begun a new life housing the University of Greenwich and, later, Trinity College of Music. That should ensure it stays the locality's main intellectual as well as physical landmark. As a setting for one of the London performances of Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ that enclosed the Christmas weeks, the college chapel's florid grandeur also had an edge over the utilitarian Barbican.

Greenwich's towering pair of Wren domes, three centuries older than Richard Rogers effort, made a timely setting for the Thomas Tallis Society's New Year gala concert. Timely because the former Royal Naval College has begun a new life housing the University of Greenwich and, later, Trinity College of Music. That should ensure it stays the locality's main intellectual as well as physical landmark. As a setting for one of the London performances of Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ that enclosed the Christmas weeks, the college chapel's florid grandeur also had an edge over the utilitarian Barbican.

L'Enfance is still one of the rarer seasonal oratorios, yet Berlioz's text could almost be of our time. His typically quirky take on the story starts with Herod's ethnic cleansing and presents Mary and Joseph as asylum seekers, turned away by respectable Egyptians and finally taken in by an immigrant household. Not so far from Albanians struggling around Dover and chancing on a Muslim family.

Berlioz set the drama to music of subtle refinement, its harrowing side dealt with reflectively except at two peak moments, and giving the performers quite a challenge of pacing. Philip Simms, conducting the Thomas Tallis Society Choir and Tallis Chamber Choir, took a robust and onward-moving line which kept the story-telling punctual. The choral balance was expertly judged, right through to the long unaccompanied finale as it faded towards silence, by way of the angelic utterances sounding out from behind the gallery doors to Stephen Dagg's idiomatic organ accompaniment.

An apocalyptically named but ad-hoc Orchestra of the Millennium played sensitive wind solos against an erratic string blend, while the performance's key professional strengths were in the choice of vocal soloists: Martyn Hill as Narrator recalling the fine French recitals of his youth, Jean Rigby taking the long view as she intensified the feeling in the later stages, Graeme Broadbent doubling as heavy-hearted Herod and generous-toned Householder.

The Barbican's pre-Christmas L'Enfance was part of the London Symphony Orchestra's Berlioz Odyssey, with Sir Colin Davis once again exercising the flair that this composer unleashes in him. Overall the conception was broad, but energy and rhythmic life poured out of the orchestral details and gave the music a positively operatic sense of drama, built on by the strongly characterised cast.

Ian Bostridge fans may have been disappointed that he could not appear, but to have instead a French tenor who has made his name in French repertoire was a real asset, given Daniel Galvez Vallejo's firm but lyrical way with the Narrator's role. Carmen Oprisanu's seamless line was thoughtfully and affectingly shaped, Orlin Anastassov opened up the troubled character of Herod and made him almost sympathetic - after all, this version of the story has him forced into the killings by a focus group. The London Symphony Chorus were their usual dependable selves, though the Tallis singers at Greenwich had nothing to fear by the comparison, least of all the men.

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