Those who characterise Berlioz as a shallow barnstormer – and yes, such thinking still happens – have clearly not heard L’Enfance du Christ, his 90-minute meditation on Christ’s infancy whose restraint is equalled only by its beauty. Berlioz set his own text for it to music of the utmost tenderness. If his “trilogie sacrée” has never attained the popularity of its composer’s other sacred works, perhaps that’s because it lacks their visceral immediacy; yet the score’s gently shifting moods ensure it is never dull.

Étienne Dupuis, Karen Cargill and Edward Gardner © BBC | Mark Allan
Étienne Dupuis, Karen Cargill and Edward Gardner
© BBC | Mark Allan

Composing an oratorio from the centre outwards may be unorthodox but inspiration first struck Berlioz when the Shepherds’ Farewell popped into his head. The rest fell into place from there. His music wears a coat of many pastoral colours, now archaic, now romantic, now exotic, and in this distinguished Barbican performance Edward Gardner painted each hue with sublime care and craft, the BBC Symphony Orchestra a sensitive palette. In its emphases and theatricality his reading had surprising echoes of Les Troyens, notably in the Saïs episode where the work’s structure slips briefly from oratorio into opera.

It helped that Gardner’s solo quartet was impeccable. Robert Murray’s narrator had the toughest job: he opened the evening with a taxing Prologue and closed it on a bruisingly protracted envoi, “Ô mon âme”. The tenor, however, was on eloquent form and made it all seem like a walk in a Paradise garden. Matthew Rose was the embodiment of basso brilliance in his two contrasting set pieces, first as a baleful King Herod in his lengthy and intense scena, “Toujours ce rêve!”, then as the compassionate Père de famille who shelters the holy family in the triptych’s final volet.

Robert Murray and Matthew Rose © BBC | Mark Allan
Robert Murray and Matthew Rose
© BBC | Mark Allan

Nowadays the inclusion of Karen Cargill’s name on a credit list guarantees a frisson before she’s sung a note, and she was true to her reputation in a commanding account of Marie (Mary) that was shot through with moments of diaphanous beauty. The Scottish mezzo-soprano floated her entrance aria, “Ô mon cher fils”, on the softest imaginable vibrato, while at her appalled reaction to her infant’s danger, “Ô ciel! mon fils!” she delivered high drama pianissimo. What a gift she has and how skilfully she deploys it!

Étienne Dupuis, who sang a sturdily-defined account of Joseph, appeared to be nursing a slight cold but it impaired his sound not a jot. Although the Canadian baritone was the only native speaker, French pronunciation was excellent across the board, and in a work whose expansive text is threaded through with poetic eloquence, that matters greatly.

Members of the BBC Singers provided the angelic semi-chorus from high in the balcony, while the massed members of the BBC Symphony Chorus shouldered the bulk of the choral material. This they did with flair but no great distinction: compared to the soloists, their drama felt drab and their attack was certainly questionable, especially in the vital music that closes the work. Nevertheless, Berlioz was well served in a performance that rose to heights of inspiring dignity and devotional beauty.

****1