MSO: L’Enfance du Christ

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Published: 3rd July, 2018

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is well-known for his large-scale works – many choristers have had the opportunity to hear or perhaps sing a performance of the mighty Requiem (1837) and Te Deum (1849). His sacred trilogy L’Enfance du Christ is less often heard, and lovers of the other works wonder why this is so. Thanks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, performing it for the first time since 1969, we have an opportunity to investigate.

L’Enfance du Christ came into being as a patchwork composition. Berlioz’ friend Joseph-Louis Duc had asked him to write something for his album, while other friends played cards, which Berlioz detested. He came up with a little organ piece with an archaic flavour, which turned into a chorus of shepherds farewelling the Holy Family from Bethlehem. He passed it off at his next concert as a work by an imaginary 17th century composer, Ducré, supposedly discovered in renovations at Sainte Chapelle. Continuing his work in the style of earlier music, adding an overture and a tenor Narrator, it became The Flight into Egypt. Only when this was performed three years later did Berlioz decide to expand the work further, adding the last part of the story, The Arrival at Saïs, and finally the beginning, Herod’s Dream. Four years after the card game, the whole work was performed to critical acclaim.

Based loosely on Matthew’s Gospel, soothsayers tell King Herod that a child has been born who will become the great ruler. Herod desperately decrees that all newborn children in Judaea – Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem – should be killed. In a stable in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph are told by Angels that they must flee to Egypt to save the baby Jesus. They are farewelled by Shepherds and, after a difficult journey, they arrive in Saïs, an Egyptian town on the Nile Delta. Eventually the “children of Israel” are welcomed as the brothers of a Syrian Ishmaelite family. Finding much in common despite their religious differences, the Holy Family stays with the them in a nurturing and loving environment for ten years before returning to Judaea and the fulfilment of Jesus’ destiny.

The Hamer Hall stage was set, and it wasn’t your typical Berlioz line-up of thousands – just a moderate sized orchestra with one row of brass (the four trumpets appearing only seconds before the orchestra tuned) and one timpanist, and the 40 men of the MSO Chorus. Although the work was to involve six solo singers, none could be seen.

Le Songe du Hérod (Herod’s Dream) opens the work. Le Récitant (Narrator) tenor Andrew Staples walked on stage with the opening orchestral bars to set the scene. From his first note, it was clear that Staples’ voice was ideal for this role. It’s a voice-type that I associate very much with baroque music, French song, and the Britten tenor roles – effortlessly placed with pinpoint pitch accuracy, wonderful diction, clarity of tone colour, and ability to rapidly repeat or hold a note exactly in tune for a long time!

Dialogue is interspersed with orchestral sections, quite compelling in their evocation of different atmospheres and moods. The Marche Nocturne evokes an empty evening street, with its sparse pizzicato low strings first, then upper strings and precisely articulated woodwind over sustained horns, which become a light and airy march, interrupted by Roman soldiers on night-patrol. A Centurion (tenor) and Polydorus (bass) capably sung by Andrew Goodwin and Shane Lowrencev respectively, exchange words, including a very effective extended and totally unaccompanied passage discussing Herod’s sleepless night and then the march moves on, with the braying of the donkeys (Anna note: wait, what donkeys?) heard as they move into the distance.

Now we move to the palace, where Herod (bass Matthew Brook) ponders the difficulties of being a king. He has had a dream and doesn’t know how to respond. His brooding spirit is painted in the orchestral score, with a preponderance of bass instruments – trombones, bassoons and double basses.

Polydorus arrives to inform Herod that the Soothsayers he’s summoned for advice have now arrived. The MSO Chorus men are these “wise men of Judaea” and once made aware of the nature of Herod’s enquiry, they consult the spirits accompanied by a weird orchestral dance in 7/4 time. Emerging from this trance-like interlude they instruct Herod to kill the newborns. The MSO Chorus men, while perhaps not quite achieving the highest degree of menacing vocal tone, certainly were incisive and accurate in their approach.

The orchestral score transitions us from this shocking passage with its dominating bass instruments as we are ushered by flutes, oboes, clarinets and violins to the peaceful scene in the stable in Bethlehem. Mary (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) is singing to her baby son. Cooke used her chocolatey rich voice to calm effect, duetting with the superb oboe solo. Joined by Joseph, sung effectively by baritone Roderick Williams, the couple sing in duet until interrupted by a choir of Unseen Angels. The voices of the women of the MSO Chorus, positioned somewhere above the audience in the Upper Circle level of Hamer Hall, floated down accompanied by a harmonium, also sounding from on high. Telling Mary and Joseph to leave immediately for Egypt, they conclude with an unaccompanied Hosanna in several parts, in which the MSO women excelled. Just three closing chords from the orchestra on stage led us to the interval.

Part Two The Flight into Egypt opens with an Overture as the shepherds gather before the manger. The brass players were no longer needed after interval, as now the orchestral score was more modest. With pastoral instruments to the fore, the superb MSO woodwind section produced quality ensemble playing, leading to the famous Shepherds’ Farewell. The whole MSO Chorus was now on stage. Their simple and unaffected singing was nicely balanced in voice parts, and their phrasing and dynamics were shaped beautifully by the conductor. Andrew Staples again with an extended solo section narrated the journey, and the angels sang Alleluia.

As Part Three The Arrival at Saïs begins, the Holy Family has suffered a gruelling journey, described again by Narrator Staples, who continued to produce the fine voice we had heard from the outset. An exhausted and overwhelmed Mary falters, while Joseph continues to knock on doors seeking hospitality. All this can be heard in the orchestral score, with the Chorus men (Egyptian villagers) turning them away scornfully. Le maître de maison (Householder), sung by bass Matthew Brook (now doubling up as an Ishmaelite) takes pity on them and welcomes them into his household where he instructs his family to take care of them. As they scatter about in response, the music is more polyphonic. With many things happening simultaneously, the choir effectively conveys this in their interjections. Brook, earlier a very capable brooding Herod, sang this new role with a telling compassion in his vocal tone.

The kind Householder now tells his children to perform on their instruments, and Berlioz treats us to an extended trio with two flutes and harp. The virtuoso playing of Prudence Davis and Wendy Clarke (flutes) and Yinuo Mu (harp) was another treat. Soloists Brook, Cooke and Williams created exactly the right atmosphere to complete this scene of relief and peace.

The Epilogue is left to the Narrator and the choir. This was for me the musical highlight of the performance, as Brook concluded the narrative, and while the choir sang unaccompanied, crept up to join them at the rear of the stage, finally singing with them a final prayer “O my heart, be filled with the pure deep love which alone can open for us the kingdom of heaven.” This extended and unaccompanied chorus with its the chromaticism, key changes, and vocal part-writing provide challenges for any choir, and the 100 + voices of the MSO Chorus handled it superbly. Andrew Staples as Narrator could be heard beside them, and all was well with the world.

Sir Andrew held the following silence for a long while, until sustained applause led to several calls to the stage for conductor, soloists and chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones.a

Why is the work not performed often? Requiring an excellent orchestra and choir, and seven soloists (six in this performance with the Herod/Householder demanding double) it is demanding. And it feels like a film score – the music creates the soundtrack to the story rather than being a work on its own, perhaps because of its patchwork construction. Some of the most memorable sections work completely independently of the whole, rather than because of it. Nevertheless, it was a sheer delight to hear, and that had a great deal to do with the quality of the MSO musicians (particularly the woodwind on this occasion), MSO Chorus, the excellent soloists, all under the shaping hands of Sir Andrew Davis.

Reviewer Margaret Arnold heard the MSO performance of L’Enfance du Christ on Friday, June 15, 2018, at Hamer Hall.