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4.0 out of 5 stars Fine singers compensate for some indifferent conducting, 26 May 2014
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Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ (Audio CD)
I am familiar with half a dozen recordings of this wonderful seasonal work but invariably return to two favourites. I dismiss Matthew Best's curiously pallid and far too anglicised version and turn to the Inbal recording from 1989,which is tenderly conducted and benefits from two very different but very beautiful voices in John Aler's vibrant Narrator and Stafford Dean's darkly intense Herod but unfortunately Margaret Zimmermann completely lacks the delicacy and nuance that both Anne Sofie von Otter and Janet Baker bring to the Holy Mother, being thick and clumsy of tone with too pronounced a vibrato and very little variety in her expression. The Joseph for Inbal sings indifferently in poor French, and thus this "L'enfance" must be ruled out on the grounds of an inadequate Holy Family.

The strength of Davis's set is the subtlety and flexibility of his phrasing which makes Gardiner's own direction sound stiff and sometimes, as in a disastrously harried "Shepherd's Farewell", simply rushed. Where Gardiner scores is in his singers: each one is either the best or at least as good as his or her competitors: von Otter is controlled and moving as Mary, Cachemaille restrained but urgent as Joseph; both have superb legato phrasing. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is mellifluous as the Narrator, every bit as much as Inbal's Aler and considerably more expressive with the text than Davis's harsher voiced Eric Tappy - who ought to have the advantage, being French-speaking Swiss but must yield to Rolfe-Johnson. Davis's Joseph is the elegant Thomas Allen, who pairs serenely with Baker in their lovely duet. Gardiner's trump card, however, is José van Dam's dark, tortured, marvellously vocalised Herod, considerably smoother voiced than the experienced Jules Bastin - but as both are native French speakers, they know what to do with the text.

Davis gets every tempo just right and draws lovely playing from the LSO, so despite the strength of Gardiner's cast, his 1976 recording continues to be the first recommendation. It astonishes me that you can find reviews presuming to find Berlioz's music here flat and uninspired; true, the piece lacks thrills and spills, being more of a meditative series of tableaux rather than having an action-packed plotline, but it is, after all, a portion of The Greatest Story Ever Told and we don't really need a libretto to understand the gist, even though the text is Berlioz's own.
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Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ
Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz (Audio CD - 1992)
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