Conceived by a bored Berlioz while others were playing cards, L’Enfance du Christ is unique amongst the composer’s musical offspring. He quipped that it was the subject that was different rather than the musical style, but his use of modal melodies and contrapuntal textures does set this “sacred trilogy” apart from his other works. At first he delighted in attributing it to a mythical Pierre Ducré (punning the name of his friend, Pierre Duc at whose house the card party had taken place) before eventually admitting that it was his own work.

L’Enfance du Christ has fared well on disc, often attracting some famous names: Victoria de los Ángeles and Nicolai Gedda for André Cluytens; Alastair Miles and Gerald Finley for Matthew Best; Susan Graham and John Mark Ainsley for Charles Dutoit; Véronique Gens and Paul Agnew for Philippe Herreweghe.

This newcomer, recorded from live performances in Melbourne, June 2018, may not boast such well-known names, but it is well sung and sympathetically directed by Sir Andrew Davis. These days the economics of recording classical music seldom allow for studio recordings with changes in microphone and singer placement as in Matthew Best’s classic 1994 recording with the Corydon Singers. Maintaining the intimacy of the music while recording live in a large concert hall is a challenge which here has largely succeeded.

First impressions gained from attending the live concert are largely reinforced by the recording. Andrew Staples is a honey-toned narrator, adept at setting the mood and inviting the listener’s sympathy for the holy family. Matthew Brook tellingly communicates both the psychological turmoil of Herod and the tenderness of the Ishmaelite. Sasha Cooke and Roderick Williams blend well together as Mary and Joseph. Australians Andrew Goodwin and Shane Lowrencev sing the Centurion and Polydorus respectively. Goodwin’s sweet, clear tone is delightful. Lowrencev’s operatic delivery has improved in retrospect.

The creative and contrasting uses Berlioz made of the chorus are well captured. From the soothsayers’ cabalistic dance, to the slaughter of the innocents and the chorus of unseen angels, the MSO chorus takes all these challenges in its stride. Davis keeps the famous Shepherds’ Farewell moving along, and there is some fine soft singing here as well as in the hugely demanding epilogue. The MSO plays with sensitivity and glorious colour.

While I continue to value Matthew Best’s account, this new recording offers much refined enjoyment.

Composer: Berlioz
Composition: L’Enfance du Christ
Performer: Sasha Cooke ms, Andrew Staples t, Roderick Williams bar, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
Catalogue Number: Chandos SACD CHSA5228 (2SACD)

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