This fine recording of Berlioz's Sacred Trilogy from Sir Andrew Davis reminds us that this oratorio is far from a bombastic choral epic, but a rather tender re-telling of the events immediately after Jesus's birth. The soft hues and nuances which Sir Andrew tends to draw from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus create the aural equivalent of an artistic triptych, inviting the listener to meditate on the Christ-child's flight to safety into Egypt with his parents; one could even borrow the title of one of Messiaen's piano cycles and call it Trois Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus.
The brisk march at the beginning of the work, after the brief Prologue, certainly sets a dramatic background as though the events described are unfolding in the present, with the wispy, veiled tones of the strings evoking the night patrol of the Roman soldiers. A narrative urgency is also lent by the spacious acoustic of Melbourne's Hamer Hall which, at times, almost gives the impression of a drama being acted out.
But it is the contemplative calm that makes the recording distinctive and enlists the listener's sympathies with the characters – even, to an extent, with Herod as he laments his uneasy state of mind, beset by dreams in which he sees his kingly power being eclipsed by a child, prompting his massacre of the new-born children in Judea. Since Berlioz does not depict that horror (we simply hear the king's command, on the soothsayers’ advice), the avuncular tones of Matthew Brook's Herod demonstrate his humanly vulnerable side. Brook's reassuring musical character also comes more straightforwardly to the fore as the Father in Egypt who welcomes in the Holy Family.
Sasha Cooke and Roderick Williams as Mary and Joseph respectively, sing with parental warmth and authority that also serves to channel any devotional tendency towards the infant saviour the work might inspire in its audience, but certainly any such piety is not cloying or sentimental. The slightly pinched, nasal quality of Andrew Staples's Narrator, and the robust singing of Shane Lowrencev as Polydorus, ground the work within a dimension of greater dramatic immediacy in any case.
In a work with several purely orchestral interludes, however, it is the music itself, so much as any particular incident in the narrative, which stands out, with both orchestra and chorus caressing their phrases thoughtfully and subtly, as sparing use of vibrato is made, and strings and woodwinds are beautifully integrated. The famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ is sung with hushed reverence, and the concluding chorus melts away tantalisingly into an atmosphere of mystical wonder. Chandos’s presentation includes texts and translations as well as numerous photographs. The sound quality is excellent.