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Berlioz: L' Enfance du Christ Original recording reissued

3.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Performer: Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Michel Fockenoy, Gilles Cachemaille
  • Orchestra: Monteverdi Choir, Lyon Opera Orchestra
  • Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner
  • Composer: Hector Berlioz
  • Audio CD (23 Nov. 1998)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Format: Original recording reissued
  • Label: Ultima
  • ASIN: B000026AXZ
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 273,280 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. The Narrator
  2. Scene 1
  3. Scene 2
  4. Scene 3
  5. Scene 4
  6. Scene 5
  7. Scene 6
  8. Overture
  9. Choir of Shepherds

Disc: 2

  1. The Repose of the Holy Family
  2. The Narrator
  3. Scenes 1 & 2
  4. Trio for two flutes and harp - Philippe Bernold/Gilles Cottin/Chantal Mathieu
  5. The Father
  6. The Narrator
  7. Mystical Chorus with Narrator

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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.
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To be fair, this must be a very difficult piece to pull off for a recording: so much of the music is quiet and thoughtful (though dramatic moments certainly do occur!) But I found myself wandering away from the cd player and cleaning the house, reading a book, whatever...although I really wanted to get a sense of it, as I was learning the piece as a choir singer.

Having now performed the piece and heard it through live 3 times (by the inimitable Scottish Chamber Orchestra), I can vouch for the fact that the problem isn't the music! It is a truly beautiful and compelling piece of music.

A friend recommends a version conducted by Charles Dutoit. I wish I had bought that one!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars 6 reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A kinder, gentler Berlioz. 19 Dec. 2003
By Bob Zeidler - Published on Amazon.com
Two hundred years ago, barely a week ago, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This, then, is a time for me to comment on a few of my favorite performances of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit, enough so that they are frequently in my CD players. This is also the time of Advent on the Christian calendar, and so it is doubly appropriate that L'Enfance du Christ, one of Berlioz's most enduring works - in fact, his biggest success during his lifetime in terms of performances led by him - should find its way into my playing queue at this time of year.

L'Enfance du Christ, while not nearly as dramatic as Berlioz's other works that could be said to fall into the genres of oratorio or cantata, is nonetheless "unquestionably Berlioz"; no one familiar with his style would confuse the work for that of another composer. An oratorio setting of the Nativity and cast in three parts (a "Sacred Trilogy" as described by him), it is his gentlest extended work by far, and it provides an ever-fresh alternative to the usual holiday music offered at this time of year.

Notwithstanding the work's "kinder, gentler" aspects, L'Enfance du Christ has all of the stylistic characteristics that serve to set aside Berlioz from his contemporaries (and successors): often-surprising melodic and harmonic shifts, quicksilver-fleet rhythmic figures, and a clarity of detail that set him up as the master orchestrator that he was. Faithfully capturing this "essence of Berlioz" - particularly the delicacy and purity of the work - then becomes a matter of a conductor (and his forces) being imbued with "the Berlioz gene" for lack of a better expression.

My familiarity with L'Enfance du Christ goes back some four decades, to the 1961 L'Oiseau-Lyre LP boxed set of Colin Davis (many, many years before he was knighted), with an all-star cast led by Peter Pears and with splendid notes provided by the Berlioz expert David Cairns. This was once available as a "Decca Double" CD transfer, but is seemingly no longer available; it is a classic. And, while Davis has since rerecorded the work (for Philips), it is John Eliot Gardiner's approach to the work - in this recording under review - that presently suits me best.

While this 1988 performance predates Gardiner's establishment of the "authentic instruments" Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique that he was later to use for his successful series of Berlioz recordings on the Philips label, his leading of the Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon has many of his now-well-known stylistic touches to the music of Berlioz: generally brisk, lithe tempi with a clear rendering of Berlioz's unique rhythmic figurations, and a wealth of clarity of detail, even delicacy, that is totally fitting to the Berlioz style.

Gardiner further has the benefit of splendid soloists for the main roles in the oratorio: Anne Sofie von Otter (seemingly "the all-purpose mezzo of our time") as Mary, Gilles Cachemaille as Joseph, Jose van Dam as Herod, and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson as The Narrator. All of these soloists, save perhaps von Otter, are well-known Berlioz specialists; von Otter is simply in a class by herself in her versatility, here providing a Mary of purity and simplicity. The Monteverdi Choir (a group that Gardiner WAS to use time and again for his later Philips recordings of Berlioz works) provides the perfect choral backdrop to the soloists and orchestra.

Here, then, is what is for me the best currently-available recording of L'Enfance du Christ, one that truly captures every aspect of both the work (and its gentleness and delicacy) and the spirit and style of the idiosyncratic and unique genius who was Berlioz. Never mind that Berlioz couldn't quite come to terms with his religion, "the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome..." of his upbringing, when an adult; his tribute to the Nativity is as heartfelt as any.

I am thankful (and I hope that others sympathetic to my comments will be as well) that this recording, originally on the full-price Erato label, has been rereleased as an inexpensive Warner (Elektra/Asylum/Teldec/Erato) "Ultima" twofer in attractive packaging (including a "slimline" jewel box). The sound is just fine, despite the recording venue being the Church of Sainte-Madeleine, Pérouges (a venue where the opportunity for overreverberant acoustics can always raise its head, but doesn't here). I can only find fault with the "foldout" containing the overly brief notes about L'Enfance du Christ (and none at all regarding Gardiner's fresh approach to the work). But this is a minor point indeed.

Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!

Bob Zeidler
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sense of reality 15 Dec. 2005
By S Duncan - Published on Amazon.com
I first encountered this work by hearing the Shepherd's chorus on a Christmas compilation album. From there, I bought this CD and what a stroke of fortune! I'm exceedingly happy with the work as a composition (i.e., the music is divine) and I'm equally happy with the performance. This is indeed an oratorio with more of a `verissimo' feel to it but with all the delicate sophistication of French opera....or at least that's my humble take on it.

Von Otter is a deeply moving Mary. She is in full, luxurious tone but with an engaging sense of the drama and a secure pitch. Even without the libretto (the only drawback to this recording) you are taken in by her character- you understand her without understanding her words (alas, I don't speak French). Cachemaille's baritone is warm and expansive. Together with Mary, he conveys a new sense of nobility (not monarchly arrogance) to the holy couple, despite their palpable desperation during the Arrival at Sais. Van Dam is blest not just with a superbly resonant voice but also with an amazing gift for vocal colouring. I have read that his tormented Herod set the standard; indeed, anguish is Van Dam's forte (not technically speaking!). The other soloists are excellent and I have not heard Rolf-Johnson sound more sublime or elegant. His aria during The Repose of the Holy Family is simply breathtaking and one that I've played over and over again. The chorus is no less superb.

Gardiner has been highly and justly praised for his masterly direction of the Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon and they respond well to his sense of the dramatic- from the roaming of the soldiers (with its effective far-away-but-drawing-nearer crescendos) to the beautiful Ishmaelite Trio, to Mary and Joseph's desperate arrival.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Herod and the holy parents are sung so well that they make up for Gardiner's stiff, amateurish conducting 30 Jan. 2013
By Santa Fe Listener - Published on Amazon.com
I try to hear as many recordings of this work as I can, including this one by Gardiner, which has good things in it. The Penguin Guide's three stars is a little outlandish, though. L'Enfance du Christ has a solid history on disc, although not many performances are with French forces. Berlioz's sweet and gentle retelling of the birth of Jesus has been recorded no less than three times by Colin Davis (the first one, on Decca, being the freshest, although all are very fine) and by another Englishman, Matthew Best, whose smaller-scale reading is just as good, although it features no star vocalists. For the most excitable rendition, one can turn to Charles Munch and the BSO, a first-rate performance in every regard except the amateur chorus. For French conductor, orchestra, and soloists, a great but rare recording is the one with Martinon and tenor Alain Vanza as the narrator. Cluytens leads a mostly French reading on a bargain EMI set that is very good, with de los Angeles as Mary.

Gardiner gives us light period touches, but they aren't very noticeable - the winds use vibrato, as do the solo singers - and those touches aren't obtrusive in Berlioz's sweet-tempered orchestration. The chief problem, as with Norrington's similar approach in this work, is amateurish, slack conducting. Of the two, Norrington is somewhat better; Gardiner is sleepy from the first bar, where rolfe-Johnson's narrator could be reading the phone book. As a result of the stiff conducting, the orchestral playing is quite variable and at times it becomes blaring and sloppy.

The burden, then, rests upon the vocal soloists. Here's the cast:
Anne Sofie von Otter, Gilles Cachemaille, José van Dam, Jules Bastin & Anthony Rolfe Johnson

Having three Francophone baritones on hand for Herod, Joseph, and the Centurion/Polydorus is a major plus; they deliver the text with crisp, alert precision - just what is wanted. Rolfe-Johnson's French is weak, so he's not a strong link; this usually excellent tenor doesn't seem in sync with Berlioz's histrionic style. Gardiner manages to bestir himself to support Van Dam's anguished Herod, a highlight in the first part. The holy parents are sung by von Otter and Cachemaille - they are a tender pair and very well portrayed. Since Van Dam is better than anyone on Norrington's set, I'd have to split the difference with this version, despite Gardiner's weak conducting.
4.0 out of 5 stars Conditionally good -- variable 19 Dec. 2015
By Robert Malone - Published on Amazon.com
My opinions about this are mixed. The soloists are among the best ever to be assembled into "L'Enfance du Christ", and the orchestral playing is in general quite good. My problem is the conducting of Gardiner -- it is variable; ranging from engaging to listless, committed to ho-hum, precise to sloppy, et cetera. For a number of reasons, I would say the good outweighs the bad, and I can give this version a conditional approval (where it is good, it is very, very good; where it is bad, it's just kind of insipid). The musical impact of the whole is positive, too much so to prohibit a complete pan of the recording (unlike Gardiner's real dud of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust"). The recording was made Jan., 1987. By the way, this release has NO libretto, always a demerit and a potentially fatal flaw for someone looking to own just one recording of a particular work.

My favorites for this work include Jean Martinon (long-out-of-print LPs from Nonesuch), Munch/BSO, and the first Colin Davis (from 1960, on Decca); for something newer, try Charles Dutoit/Montreal (Decca). This Gardiner will also do, but shy away from the totally lackluster job by Matthew Best (Hyperion), even though he does have some excellent vocal forces.
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine singers compensate for some indifferent conducting 26 May 2014
By Ralph Moore - Published on Amazon.com
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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