Before attending Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia’s performance of L’enfance du Christ, I could have claimed to be almost entirely ignorant of Berlioz’s music. The only exception – apart from an innocuous bucolic passage from Harold in Italy I ‘studied’ at A-level – was ‘The Shepherd’s Farewell’, which makes my Christmas chocolate box list annually. Seeking guidance on whether or not I should take a gamble and hear this famous farewell in its proper context (in the middle of Berlioz’s one and a half hour long Christmas oratorio), I rather shamelessly took to the medium of social media to ask the opinion of my esteemed peers. Their responses were overwhelmingly negative. Apparently, the Facebook generation tends to dismiss the nineteenth-century Frenchman as disinteresting.

Sarah Connolly, © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly,
© Peter Warren

Now, I’m not saying that my friends are fashion gurus, but perhaps it was my natural leaning towards the unfashionable that led me to spurn their responses and show up at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Or perhaps it was simply the prospect of witnessing Sir Mark Elder, one of the country’s most eminent and respected conductors, direct the Britten Sinfonia and their newly-founded choral associates, the Britain Sinfonia Voices, in an intriguing and rarely performed work. Not forgetting the chance of hearing Sarah Connolly sing the part of the Virgin Mary. Put that way, the dilemma was a bit of a no-brainer, really.

L’enfance du Christ is a three-part oratorio or ‘sacred trilogy’ focusing on three specific events from the nativity story: Herod’s Dream, The Flight into Egypt, and The Arrival at Saïs. Berlioz saw himself as a musical illuminator, working in the tradition of the medieval monks who illuminated the margins of their sacred manuscripts. Thus, the music paints pictures, but not in the sense we have come to associate with French image-evoking music. Berlioz avoids any sort of musical impressionism by creating incredibly literal imagery. At times, the resulting music can be delightfully naïve, or wonderfully powerful and vivid, as in the furious fugal passage where a hectically virtuosic Herod is worked into a merciless frenzy, accompanied by terrifyingly simple trombone fanfares outlining the diminished 7th chord. However, elsewhere this literalism can result in banal, even ridiculous passages which prevent one from taking the music seriously. The libretto is equally guilty of this. Written by Berlioz himself, for the most part the language is unobtrusive and occasionally touchingly simple and beautiful. Certain passages, however, particularly in Part 3 of the work, are excruciatingly trite.

But if the composition has certain weak points, the performance made up for them tenfold. Under Elder, the Britten Sinfonia achieved a perfect poise, in which the subtler moments of Berlioz’s narrative were as beautiful as the climaxes were exciting, and the constant, concentrated energy of sound eliminated any chance of dullness that a lesser performance might provoke. The Britten Sinfonia Voices, singing in their inaugural concert, impressed with their dramatic moments – as a band of bloodthirsty soothsayers in Herod’s palace (Part 1), and a crowd of angry ex-pat Romans in Saïs (Part 3) – and amazed with their angelic passages, of which the last (and best) ended the work in breathtaking, pin-dropping beauty. Stars of the show, though, were the four vocal soloists: Sarah Connolly as Mary, Roderick Williams singing the part of Joseph, Allan Clayton narrating, and Neal Davies balancing the contrasting plates of Herod and the Good Ishmaelite. Clayton and Davies seemed especially emotionally invested in their roles: Davies’s Herod practically radiating paranoia and hatred; Clayton noticeably and genuinely moved deeply by the hauntingly celestial choral ending,
in which his light tenor voice mingled perfectly with the hushed choir. And of course, Sir Mark himself deserves special mention, for without his pioneering spirit and true musical sensitivity, the hugely appreciative audience would have had far less, if anything at all, to applaud so heartily.

Despite the fairy-tale nature of Berlioz’s narrative, and the fact that early nineteenth-century French music seems so particularly out of favour with today’s listeners, this concert went to prove that L’enfance du Christ is a work of intense musical and emotional substance, which can have a true resonance with both professional performers and fee-paying listeners. In that respect, this Christmas tale is not so different from the festival on which its story is based. If you care to engage with it, it can offer a warmth and beauty not quite like any other.