As beginnings go, it wasn't auspicious: orchestra, chorus, soloists and even conductor drifted on stage casually, unmarked by applause; small clusters of string players stood around chatting; Sir Mark Elder circulated like a genial host at a mince-pie-and-carols gathering, or a headmaster, relaxed ahead of the school nativity play even though Baby Jesus has gone momentarily AWOL. 'Perhaps they'll bring round the coffee soon', murmured one disgruntled audience member. The discreet but frequent reappearance of a stage manager was the only acknowledgement of the rapidly receding 7:30pm start. And then, just as mysteriously, professionalism suddenly reigned: the string players sat down; the soloists sat up; Elder took to his podium.
For all that 'tis the season of oratorios, Berlioz's reworking of the Christmas story (now entirely post-natal) is rarely performed – and you can see why. It's a peculiar piece, the tone dominated by his beloved 'early' music, represented bya cappella choral writing and pedantically worked-through pseudo-fugue. Alongside these sounds from the past are passages of startlingly original orchestration (Berlioz was, after all, the man who wrote one of the nineteenth century's most famous orchestration treatises) and experimentation with modern effects and harmonies. And from time to time moments of extraordinary poise and beauty emerge briefly, only to disappear amid the contrapuntal toiling.
Messiah it is most certainly not; but Elder's high-definition reading made a persuasive argument for the piece. He drew glorious tone from the Britten Sinfonia strings, whose stylistic flexibility was more than a match for Berlioz's eclecticism: the counterpoint was taken lightly, with a nod towards 'early music¬' performance style, while elsewhere minute details sparkled at the surface of the dense orchestration. The woodwind recovered from a slightly hesitant start to demonstrate the quality of the Britten Sinfonia’s current ensemble, with the (admittedly bizarre) flute and harp trio in Part III a particular delight.
The soloists were also excellent, with clear French diction a notable constant. Allan Clayton (narrator) provided what was in many ways the evening's finest performance: his high, open tenor is perfectly suited to the French repertoire, and to this role in particular. His tonal clarity was a perfect foil to the softer-focus voices of Roderick Williams (Polydorus and Joseph), Sarah Connolly (in fully feminine mode for Virgin Mary) and Neal Davies (multi-tasking as the Centurion, Herod and the Father). Williams and Connolly were at their best in the two duets in Parts I and III: Connolly's performance was poignant in its gentleness and well matched throughout by Williams' warm baritone. While some melodic detail was occasionally lost in Davies' lower register, elsewhere he brought a real sense of drama, above all as Herod in Part I (a role in which he positively oozed malevolence).
This was also the first outing of the new Britten Sinfonia Voices (directed by Eamonn Dougan), who sang the various on- and off-stage choruses. It will be interesting to see how the Voices fare in other repertoire – and whether they can match the orchestra's trademark polyglottism. But the Oxbridge-college sound of the current ensemble was ideally suited to Berlioz's explicitly 'antique' soundworld. The female chorus deserve particular mention for their contribution to Part I, their voices floating in from offstage, accompanied by the organ and merging seamlessly with the diaphanous orchestral texture. Like many other moments in this performance, however unexpected, the effect was truly spine-tingling.
Photo: Simon Dodds
There will be two more concerts of the Britten Sinfonia/Sir Mark Elder's L'enfance du Christ, as follows:
West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
Friday 9 December at 7.30pm
Box Office: 01223 357851
Concert Hall, Brighton Dome, Brighton
Saturday 10 December at 7.30pm
Box Office: 01273 709709
CD review: Berlioz's L'Enfance du christ performed by the LSO under Sir Colin Davis
Concert review: The Britten Sinfonia led by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Aldeburgh Festival
Interview: Sir Mark Elder on Ariadne, the Hallé and the joys of being an English conductor