Friday, 9 December 2011

Britten Sinfonia/Elder: Berlioz, L'Enfance du Christ, 8 December 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

L’Enfance du Christ, op.25

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Neal Davies (bass)

Britten Sinfonia Voices (chorus master: Eamonn Dougan)
Britten Sinfonia
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

I have somehow managed to miss Sir Colin Davis’s London performances of L’Enfance du Christ, making it one of the final major Berlioz works I have heard in the flesh. (I hope to rectify the understandable omission of the Messe solenelle when Riccardo Muti conducts it in Salzburg next summer, a performance of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale remaining.) There was much to enjoy in this performance from Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia, though my impression was that much of an often badly-behaved audience enjoyed it more than I did. (The second half was considerably delayed whilst the rest of us were compelled to wait for a gang of braying corporate hospitality beneficiaries from Mills and Reeves solicitors. I should like to think that it was from that group that a friend overheard some people announcing that the work had been composed by Benjamin Britten…)

For me, the problem lay in Elder’s conducting, certainly not in the ever-immediate response of the Britten Sinfonia. On the positive side, Elder imparted drive to the narrative, almost as if this were an opera rather than a dramatic choral work. (Berlioz never termed it an oratorio, though it is commonly and harmlessly thus described today.) I especially liked the ominous orchestral tread from Herod’s Palace, forshadowing the ‘Libera me’ from Fauré’s Requiem. Berlioz’s inimitable nervous energy was present throughout, to considerable effect. And the Ishmaelite trio for two flutes and harp was an utter delight, charmant to a degree, though it seemed quite unnecessary for the conductor to traverse the stage to conduct it. The bassoon timbre, echoing, consciously or otherwise, the music for the Witch of Endor in Handel’s Saul, was spot on for the appearance of Herod’s soothsayers. But the near-absence, certain orchestral rebellions notwithstanding, of string vibrato was a serious problem. The Vibratoverbot was not universally applied, or at least not universally adhered to: I both saw and heard valiant musicians tempt the wrath of the Norringtonian gods. There are so many objections to this practice that it is difficult to know where to start. It is utterly unhistorical, despite the pseudo-historical pleas routinely made for it. At any rate, the contrast between lively, colourful, plausibly ‘French’ woodwind and frankly unpleasant string sound was jarring. Indeed, the poor violins were forced to play for the scene in the Bethlehem stable in a fashion more reminiscent of a scratchy school orchestra than the fine ensemble we all know this to be. It could have been worse for them, I suppose: they might have been members of Norrington’s demoralised Stuttgart orchestra. Afterwards, I noticed a quotation from Elder in the programme: ‘Each particular scene has its own timbre. It is not a rich, twentieth-century sound but rather more restrained with little vibrato in the voices and instruments.’ No justification is made for the claim, let alone the results, but I cannot help wondering why, if every scene has its own timbre, a more-or-less blanket prohibition on vibrato is considered appropriate.

Choral singing was first-rate throughout, the Britten Sinfonia Voices clearly well trained by Eamonn Dougan. The choir’s keenness in the fugue, ‘Que de leurs pieds meurtris on lave les blessures!’ was exemplary, likewise the fine blend of the final a cappella chorus (with narrator), a barrage of coughs notwithstanding. Offstage, the invisible angels impressed equally, though there was something distinctly odd about the sound of the organ; I assume it must have been electronic. That the Shepherds’ Farewell was a little hasty was no fault of the singers.

The vocal soloists all had their strengths too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams proved the strongest: what a joy it was to hear such a melting duet from them in the stable scene, their voices happily uniting deeply-felt expressiveness with Gallic elegance. The French language heard elsewhere was often more of a trial; though Allan Clayton often sang beautifully, especially at the close, the meaning of the words was not always quite so apparent. Whilst Neal Davies had his moments, the power of his projection of Herod’s turmoil – at times, this presages both musically and temperamentally close to Boris Godunov – was often compromised by a tendency to emote excessively. The dryness at the bottom of his range was cruelly exposed from time to time.

In a sense, I have saved the worst until last: a half-baked attempt – Elder’s initiative, I am told – to evoke a sense of ‘community’ prior to the performance. Even some time after the solicitors and their important clients had deigned to join proceedings, we were made to wait a good few minutes whilst Elder and various members of the orchestra walked around on stage, conversing inaudibly in a fashion that would have shamed the most homespun of amateur dramatic societies. A concert scheduled for 7.30 thus began at 7.45. Alas, the only ‘community’ evoked was that of Deborah Warner’s ludicrous ENO staging of the Messiah. There was so much that was good in this performance that it was a real pity for a few aspects to have detracted from it so significantly. Let us hope, then, that London will not have to wait too long for another performance from Sir Colin.


Andrew said...

Making the audience watch you stand around and chat to your colleagues sounds like a good way to try the patience of the paying public!

Anonymous said...

The start of the concert was delayed by the breakdown of the lift used by disabled audience members, as a little research would have established.

Mark Berry said...

For all I know, that may well have compounded matters, though I fail to see why members of the audience should be expected to conduct research into such matters; it might be a better idea to inform them. But it can hardly account for either the staged 'conversation' at the beginning or the late arrival of corporate guests after the interval.

Anonymous said...

Since the "conversation" before the performance delayed the start of the music by not one second, criticism of it for doing so is otiose. Perhaps no announcement about the cause of the delay was made in order to spare the feelings of disabled audience memebers who might have felt they were being held obliquely "responsible". I do not know.

Anna Crookes said...

As one of the members of the newly formed Britten Sinfonia voices, I for one am very grateful for the corporate sponsors - without them in these uncertain financial times there may well have been no performance of this wonderful work at all; and a brave choice to sponsor this, rather than taking the easy option of a "Messiah"...I do think that Boulezian might look at the score too occasionally - Berlioz was very particular about his metronome markings,an Sir Mark Elder took great care to adhere to these;hence the rather more upbeat, authentic and subsequently easier to sing Shepherds Farewell than he must be used to...

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for your comments, Anna. On the issue of corporate sponsorship, all I wish to say is that it strikes me as grossly ill-mannered for people to take advantage of their financial position by inconveniencing others.

Regarding metronome markings, etc., in a sense you have Berlioz on your side. In the report he made (later to appear in his Memoirs) of an 1848 visit to Prague, he said that a conductor should study the composer's metronome markings, though he went on to say that they should not be followed slavishly. However, it is surely the overall effect that is important, not conformity with a number that may or may not have had validity at a certain point in time in the composer's imagination. (Many composers have revised such markings after performance, or have simply disregarded them in their own performances. Bartók's ultra-precise timings are a case in point.) I did not find the Shepherds' Farewell breathless, as is so often the case in a performance setting great store by the metronome, just a little too bright and breezy. In any case, as I hope I made clear, I had little quarrel with most of the tempi and found the choral singing excellent throughout. The principal problem, selfish audience behaviour aside, was the lack of string vibrato.

Peter Cobrin said...

Luckily in Brighton we were spared corporate morons. We had our own who ruined the pause of wonderment at the very end by starting to clap while Sir Mark clearly had unfinished business even if it was silence. I apologise -- they'd clearly escape from a local centre of philistines. Luckily what went before was superb, and the vibrato free playing added a simplicity and pureness to what can so easily be saccherin sweetness. Stop knocking our Roger -- he's clearly rattled your cage. His Mahler 9 was astonishing and I've seen Klemperer, Haitink, Bernstein and Solti all conduct this work.

Great singing in the Berlioz. It's invidious to single out -- but Sarah Connelly is sublime. I dashed home to see her swagger as Julius Caesar in the Glyndbourne DVD just to check if this was really one and the same. Allan Clayton sent shivers down my spine with his ringing high notes. Thanks to all and sorry about the morons!!