Prom 37: L’Enfance du Christ

Prom 37. Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ
Halle Orchestra, Maxime Pascal
Britten Sinfonia Voices, Genesis Sixteen
Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2019

L’Enfance du Christ is a curious work to programme in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall for a Berlioz anniversary Prom. The gently reflective nature of the unfolding story seems to demand a sense of intimacy, whereas works such as the Te Deum cry out for such a setting. The genesis of L’Enfance du Christ is a fascinating one. Berlioz wrote a tiny organ piece into an architect’s album during a card-playing party in 1850. Realising the nature of his creation, he immediately added some words and gave birth to the famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ (L’adieu des bergers). He added it to his next concert with a hoax billing as by a forgotten 17th-century composer, named after the architect who asked for the little musical momento. Four years later, it would later form the centre-point of what he termed a ‘sacred trilogy’ – L’Enfance du Christ, a three-section oratorio.

The three sections depict King Herod’s massacre of the firstborn in Judaea; the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt to avoid the massacre, after a warning by angels; and their arrival in the Egypt, where they are first rejected, but then given hospitality by a family of Ishmaelites. For the non-believer Berlioz, it is a remarkably sensitive telling of the Biblical story, for which he provided his own text.

The short-notice absence of the billed conductor, Sir Mark Elder (undergoing surgery to release the trapped nerves in his neck) saw the young French conductor Maxime Pascal taking the podium. Such things can cause chaos, and for the first few moments of experiencing Pascal’s extraordinarily flamboyant conducting style suggesting that chaos would ensue. But despite his podium antics, he seems to have won over the Halle players, who responded to his directorial ideas, despite them appearing to have been transmitted through the medium of dance as he wafted about like a reed in the breeze. The original success of L’Enfance du Christ was due to the fact that it wasn’t like anything else Berlioz had composed, not least for avoiding the bombastic and dramatic nature of many of his pieces. It was that gentle and reflective nature that was paramount in this performance. One key aspect was the vibrato-free string playing of the Halle, making a vast difference to the tone and texture of the melodic lines. They produced some extraordinarily sensitive and subdued playing, at times bordering on the inaudible.

As well as the chorale-like Shepherds’ Farewell, the other key musical moment come while the Holy Family are in the home of the Ishmaelite Family, when Berlioz has the ‘Young Ishmaelites’ perform a lengthy Trio for Two Flutes and Harp, played beautifully by Amy Yule and Sarah Bennett, flutes (also without vibrato), and Marie Leenhardt, harp. It was a magical, if structurally curious moment and was the only time in the entire piece when audience applause was appropriate, joined by the orchestra and conductor.

Pascal’s control of the pacing of the music produced several momentous moments, notably in the orchestral link to the Epilogue, a moment when the long periods of silence between the quiet chords revealing the heavy breathing of somebody in the audience catching up on some sleep. The four singers shared the seven roles, with Allan Clayton taking the key role of Narrator, mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Mary, (standing in for the indisposed Dame Sarah Connolly), baritone Roderick Williams as Polydorus and Joseph, and bass Neal Davies as an imposing Herod and the Father of the Ishmaelite Family. All were exceptional, their unforced singing into the space – exactly the way to treat the Royal Albert Hall acoustics.