Like the work itself – which grew organically over four years from a rustic ditty Berlioz was asked to compose at a card game for a friend’s album in 1850 – this performance morphed from the originally advertised line-up. Following the news about Sarah Connolly, Julie Boulianne was quickly announced (she’d sung in John Eliot Gardiner’s Roméo et Juliette in 2016 here). But then Mark Elder also had to withdraw at short notice – requiring surgery – and was replaced by Maxime Pascal, who at the Royal Festival Hall in May conducted Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht.
How much of the stage layout was pre-planned by Elder I’m not sure – antiphonal violins, the six double basses forming the back line of the orchestra; the Angels up in the Gallery, the positioning during the interval of the harp (Marie Leenhardt) front of stage, joined by two flautists (Amy Yule & Sarah Bennett) for the Ishmaelites’ trio: all could have been Elderisms – but baton-less Pascal adapted to them. He is something of a dancer on the podium, flexing naturally to the music whilst sculpting entries as if from the ether. His Berlioz was as lean as he is, and seemed dangerously slow at the end, but he carried his musicians and singers – just the men of the Britten Sinfonia Voices and Genesis Sixteen in the first part – with him all the way, and the Hallé particularly seemed to enjoy his terpsichorean technique. In this most intimate of Berlioz’s large-scale works, Pascal fashioned a truly intimate performance in that barn of a venue, the Royal Albert Hall.
L’Enfance du Christ remains a curious work. It starts, with little preamble, with Herod’s troubled dream and the advice he seeks from the soothsayers, resulting in his edict for all new-born to be put to the sword. Only then do we meet Mary, Joseph and Jesus, warned by the unseen Angels to leave. The second part (here after the interval) – ‘The Flight into Egypt’ – opens with that original card-game ditty, transformed into the lilting ‘Shepherd’s Farewell’ prefacing the Holy Family’s arduous escape to Egypt. It functions as a short pivotal centrepiece (ending at a welcome oasis) between the larger outer parts. The third – ‘The Arrival at Saïs’ – starts in desperation in the face of racism (Romans and Egyptians refusing the escapees shelter) but ends in beneficence as the Ishmaelite (like Joseph, a carpenter) and his relatives take the Holy Family in and help bring Jesus up.
Joining Boulianne’s radiant Mary, the male soloists all played dual roles. Allan Clayton added the small part of the Centurion in the first part to his Narrator; Neal Davies – Janus-like – turned from the dark side (Herod) to the kind-hearted Father of the Ishmaelite House; and Roderick Williams added Polydorus to his assumption of Joseph. Pascal’s direction gave them space and support to give their best. The combined forces of the Britten Sinfonia Voices and Genesis Sixteen (the latter of up-and-coming singers attached to Harry Christophers’s The Sixteen) were equally expressive.
Integral to success was the Hallé, revelling in Berlioz’s characterful orchestral sections. This was a subtle though wholly appropriate and convincing presentation.