L’Enfance du Christ review – full of colour and character


Show caption John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with soloists Ann Hallenberg and Lionel Lhote. Photograph: Paul Marc Mitchell Classical music L’Enfance du Christ review – full of colour and character St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

John Eliot Gardiner assembles top-flight soloists as his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique take on Berlioz

Erica Jeal Sun 12 Dec 2021 13.55 GMT Share on Facebook

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A stone’s throw from the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in the National Gallery, you can see what the old Flemish painters made of the story of the holy family’s flight into Egypt. Here, with John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique giving their first concert in their new home venue, you could hear Berlioz’s take on it.

L’Enfance du Christ is full of Berlioz’s characteristic moodswings and grand, colourful gestures: it’s an oratorio that sounds as though it desperately wants to be an opera, perfect for the characterful period winds and brass of Gardiner’s orchestra and for the top-flight cast of soloists he had assembled here. Michael Spyres’s glowing Narrator, Ann Hallenberg’s beatific Mary and Lionel Lhote’s desperate yet noble Joseph – it would have been good to hear more of all three, but Berlioz doesn’t put the spotlight squarely on any one soloist. The smaller roles were taken by singers from the choir; Alexander Ashworth made especially vivid work of the Ishmaelite who takes the family in.

Only William Thomas’s Herod came across as less than authoritative, looking a little wooden as he sang Herod’s wakeful monologue, however cavernous and velvety his voice. But perhaps that’s not so inappropriate for the troubled ruler Berlioz paints so keenly in the orchestra. The violins imitated the phrases of his aria so fervently that you almost felt sorry for him.

The way the choir sang the Shepherds’ Farewell made it feel almost like a shared oration in this church setting, and angels, sung by the Trinity Boys Choir from somewhere beyond the balcony, made their spine-tingling effect. When it came to the musical entertainment that’s laid on for the holy family at their new home, Gardiner sat down and just let the trio get on with it – and it was beautifully, energetically played by the flautists Gareth Davies and David Westcombe and harpist Gwyneth Wentink.

The concert was being filmed, which was unobtrusive until near the end, when on a couple of occasions Gardiner restarted sections immediately after a smudged entry. Was it to get these perfect for the final edit? It was barely noticeable – but how are we to experience a performance entirely in the moment if the conductor demonstrably isn’t doing so?