Robin Ticciati - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra - Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ - Gramophone

Excerpts from 'The Gramophone Collection'. Berlioz's new-found purity and simplicty. In L'enfance du Christ, many early listeners thought they detected a radical change in Berlioz's musical style and manner; the composer begged to differ. Geoffrey Norris chooses his favourite recording...

Apart from Dervaux's 1959 version, two others use a French Narrator and they choose the same one, Yann Beuron: he sings both for Sir Colin Davis on his third recording and for Robin Tlcciati with his Swedish forces, and in both he conveys an ethereal weightlessness but also a true senseof the weighty import of the news he isimparting. This became one of the deciding factors in listening to and comparing these 14 versions.

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THE KING'S DREAM

The Herod's Dream sequence, which incorporates the king's anxious recitative, his brooding aria (scene 2) and his meeting with the soothsayers (scene 4), is one of those multifaceted sections of L'enfance du Christ that most closely approaches the operatic stage, complete wim a climactic finale in which Herod sets his mind on the slaughter of the innocents. This extended scene includes one of Berlioz's colouristic exotic touches in which the soothsayers (to quote the directions) 'perform their cabalistic rights and then start their incantation'. Berlioz casts this episode in 7/4 time - or, rather, in alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4, explaining in a note that the overall effect should be that of a single 7/4 bar...Taking scene 4 as a whole, however, the most compelling, organic interpretationc omes from Robin Ticciati. His aptly dark-toned Herod is - well, how odd, there's no mention of Herod in the cast list. We have Yann Beuron as Narrator, Veronique Gens as Mary, Stephan Loges as Joseph and Alastair Miles as Father of the Family. The ear tells you, however, that Miles doubles as Herod and Father of the Family, and he does so with unerring empathy, capturing both the mental fragility and apprehension of Herod and, contrastingly, the warmth of humanity in the Father of the Family in The Arrival at Sais. Ticciati not only manages the utterances of the soothsayers with apt flow and inflection but also, by means of energetic thrust on the dynamic markings, makes their cabalistic rites all the more unnerving. He finds the precise impact for Herod's abrupt interruption (Berlioz marks it anime) and, once the finale gets under way with the allegro agitato at bar 556, he builds up the pressure with terrific impetus and terrifying menace.

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THE SHEPHERDS' FAREWELL

'L'adieu des bergers' – 'The Shepherds'Farewell' – while perennially the favourite number from L'enfance du Christ, occupies a mere four or five minutes in the grand scheme of things but it offers a convenient peg on which to hang the final analysis of all these recordings. Berlioz marks it Allegretto with the speed indication of a lilting dotted crotchet=50, far removed from the pious ponderousness it often acquires when sung as a separate item...But my top choice is the most recent disc, Robin Ticciati conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir, a Linn recording released last year. There is a gleaming transparency to the orchestral textures here, coupled with Ticciati's sure ear for how instrumental timbres can animate the colour spectrum. The drama is there; so too is the contemplation, born facets set in ideal equilibrium with moments of tension and repose artlessly judged. Yann Beuron is, you could say, the must-have narrator; Veronique Gens and Stephan Loges are sublimely matched as Mary and Joseph; and Alastair Miles warmly embraces the roles of both Herod and Father of the Family.

I interviewed Ticciati last year for a 'Musician and the Score' piece at the time this recording of L'enfance du Christ was released (12/13). We were talking about a notably tricky passage in Part 3 where wisps of crucial detail in the score and a good many other components go to makeup the broader picture. As Ticciati said at the time: 'Once you've sorted out your dramaturgy, once you've sorted out the structure harmonically and the direction of the text, suddenly you see how it should be.' In this performance he has not only seen how it should be but he has also coaxed his forces into conveying to the listener the music's poignant spirinial message and expressive essence.    

Gramophone
01 December 2014