Saturday, December 25, 2004

[12/25/2010] Christmas Day edition: In Berlioz's telling, unto us a child is saved (continued)


Some 15 years after the recording we just heard, conductor André Cluytens got to rerecord L'Enfance du Christ in stereo, this time with some imported soloists: Nicolai Gedda as the Narrator and Victoria de los Angeles as Mary. (Joseph was sung, not very happily, by bass-baritone Roger Soyer, whom we're going to hear in a moment as a really outstanding King Herod.) Here's Gedda singing the Opening Narration.
At that time Jesus had just been born in the manger;
but no portent had yet made him known.
Yet already the mighty trembled,
already the weak had hope.
Everyone waited ...
Learn now, Christian folk, what hideous
crime terror prompted then in the King of the Jews,
and the heavenly counsel the Lord
sent to Jesus’s parents in their lowly stable.
Nicolai Gedda (t), Narrator; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

Scene 1: Nocturnal March; Scene, Centurion and Polydorus

The first scene proper we heard last year: a simultaneously eerie and goofy Nocturnal March that sets the stage for a dialogue in which a Roman centurion and a soldier who stands watch on King Herod's palace discuss the king's increasingly erratic behavior. To refresh our memory, here's the continuation of the Cluytens-EMI stereo L'Enfance.
A street in Jerusalem. A guardhouse; Roman soldiers on night patrol.


CENTURION: Who goes there?
CENTURION: Polydorus! Corporal, I thought you were on Tiber’s banks by now.
POLYDORUS: So I should be if Gallus, our precious Praetor,
had only let me.
But for no good reason
he’s shut me up
in this dreary city, watching its antics
and keeping guard over a petty Jewish king’s
sleepless nights.
CENTURION: What’s Herod doing?
POLYDORUS: He broods, quakes with fear,
sees traitors on every side, and daily summons
his Council; and from dusk to dawn
has to be looked after: he’s getting on our nerves.
CENTURION: Absurd despot! But off on your rounds now.
POLYDORUS: Yes, I must. Good night! Jove’s curse on him!
[The patrol resumes its march and moves off into the distance.]
Rémy Corazza (t), Centurion; Bernard Cottret (bs), Polydorus; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

Scene 2, Herod's Aria

The scene switches to Herod's palace, where the king is haunted by persistent dreams of an imminent threat to his rule. He then claims -- to himself, mind you, since there's no one else around -- that this business of being a king is a misery, a horrible burden, when what he would really like to be doing is gamboling with goatherds out in the fields. It's as eloquent and heart-rending an outpouring as you can hear anywhere, and of course it's all total bullshit. The moment his soothsayers confirm the possibility of a threat to his reign, he instantly orders the massacre of the innocents, without hesitation or compunction.

We're going to hear Ernest Blanc sing this stunning aria first. Blanc had a lovely, plummy baritone (I've never heard the equal of his recorded performance of the High Priest in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila), but he's handicapped here by the fact that while the writing does go high-ish, it's clearly written for a bass, not a baritone. Blanc might have been better used as the legitimately baritonelike Joseph, which was sung in this recording by bass-baritone Roger Soyer, whom we're going to hear in a moment, in a recording from roughly the same time, singing a stupendous Herod.
HÉRODE: That dream again! Again the child
who is to cast me down.
And not to know what to believe
of this omen which threatens
my glory and my existence!

O the wretchedness of kings!
To reign, yet not to live!
To mete out laws to all,
yet long to follow
the goatherd into the heart of the woods!
Fathomless night
holding the world
deep sunk in sleep,
to my tormented breast
grant peace for one hour,
and let thy shadows touch
my gloom-pressed brow.

O the wretchedness of kings!, etc.

All effort’s useless!
Sleep shuns me;
and my vain complaining
no swifter makes thy course, O endless night.
Ernest Blanc (b), Hérode; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

TO RECAP . . .

Opening Narration; Scene 1, Nocturnal March and Dialogue, Centurion-Polydorus; Scene 2, Herod's Aria

Now let's hear the whole thing put together, in the recording conducted by Jean Martinon that was available here for a longtime on Nonesuch LPs. It's on the dry side acoustically, and interpretively it's on the spare side, but it's performed with real understanding and is on the whole quite decently cast. Overall it's still the most nearly satisfactory performance I've heard of this incredibly difficult piece. Is anyone aware of a CD issue of it?

Vanzo and Martinon give by a good margin the best performance I've heard of the Opening Narration, and in Herod's aria, as noted, we have bass-baritone Roger Soyer in his brief prime. Because Soyer went on singing so long after the juice drained out of the sound, people tend to forget how fine a voice this was at the outset. In collaboration with Martinon he gives one hell of a performance.

Alain Vanzo (t), Narrator; Robert Andreozzi (t), Centurion; Jean-Pierre Brossmann (b), Polydorus; Roger Soyer (bs-b), King Herod; French National Radio Orchestra, Jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s


We're still in Part I, mind you, but these last scenes always seem to me to belong to the minuscule Part II, which consists of an Overture, the "Farewell of the Shepherds," and the Narrator's tale of the relative unproblematic first leg of the Holy Family's flight. I suppose, though, that these scenes really do belong to Part I, since they round out the events foretold in the Opening Narration: the "heavenly counsel" delivered in the humble stable to the parents of the infant Jésus.

After Herod's convocation soothsayers say the sooth that leads to the butchering of so many Judean infants (this of course is the monstrous crime the Narrator told us of, the one that was suggested to the king by terror), in the final scenes of Part II we meet the Holy Family holed up in their stable. The adoring parents are tending to their precious new son when angels deliver the celestial warning the Narrator also told us of, and Mary and Joseph accept that their only hope of saving little Jésus is to flee into the desert wilderness in the direction of Egypt.

Part I, Scene 5, The Stable in Bethlehem
MARY: O my dear son, give this fresh grass
to these lambs that come bleating to thee;
they are so gentle, let them take it. Don’t let them go hungry, my child.
MARY, JOSEPH: Spread these flowers, too, about their straw. They are pleased with thy gifts, dear child; see how blithe they are, how they gambol, and how their mother turns towards thee her grateful gaze.
MARY:Blessed be thou, my dear sweet child!
JOSEPH: Blessed be thou, holy child!
Victoria de los Angeles (s), Mary; Roger Soyer (bs-b), Joseph; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

This scene, although understandably placed by Berlioz at the end of Part I -- it does, after all, represent the completion of the events we were told of in the Opening Narration -- always seems to me to belong more properly to the ensuing, minuscule Part II, which consists of an Overture, the "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family," and the return of the Narrator to tell us of the successful first part of the Holy Family's journey.

Part I, Scene 6, The Angels' Warning
CHOIR OF UNSEEN ANGELS: Joseph! Mary! Hearken to us!
MARY, JOSEPH: Spirits of life, can it be you?
ANGELS: Thou must save thy son
whom great danger threatens, Mary.
MARY: O heavens! My son!
ANGELS: Yes, you must go
and leave no trace behind you;
this very night you shall flee through the desert
towards Egypt.
MARY, JOSEPH: Obedient to your word, pure spirits of light,
we shall flee with Jesus to the desert.
But grant us, we humbly pray,
wisdom and strength, so we shall save him.
ANGELS: The power of heaven
will keep from your path
all fatal encounters.
MARY, JOSEPH: Let us hasten to get ready.
ANGELS: Hosanna! Hosanna!
Victoria de los Angeles (s), Mary; Roger Soyer (bs-b), Joseph; Choeurs René Duclos, Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

Part II, Overture and "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family"

As always, Berlioz digs to the heart of the human situation, and the pain of separation here is palpable -- as long, as I suggested last year, as it's performed without sloppy sentimentality, which gets in the way of the real event.
SHEPHERDS: He is going far from the land
where in the stable he was born;
may his father and his mother
always love him steadfastly;
may he grow and prosper
and be a good father in his turn.

If ever among the idolaters
he should find misfortune,
let him flee the unkind land
and come back to live happily among us.
May the shepherd’s lowly life
be ever dear to his heart.

Dear child, may God bless thee,
and God bless you, happy pair!
May you never feel
the cruel hand of injustice.
May a good angel warn you
of all dangers that hang over you.
Choeurs René Duclos, Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

Here, then is a cobbled composite of the scenes of the Holy Family in the stable.

Part I, Scene 5-6, The Holy Family Receives the "Heavenly Counsel"
Part II, Overture and "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family"

Jane Berbié (ms), Mary; Claude Calès (b), Joseph; French National Radio Chorus and Orchestra, jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s


The story of the Holy Family's flight into the desert spans Parts II and III. At first, things go well; then, not so well.

Part II, The Repose of the Holy Family
NARRATOR: The pilgrims having come
to a place of fair aspect
with bushy trees
and fresh water in abundance,
St Joseph said: ‘Stop!
near this clear spring.
After such long toil
let us rest here.’
The child Jesus was asleep. Then Holy Mary,
halting the ass, answered:
‘Look at this fair carpet of soft grass and flowers
that the Lord spread in the desert for my son.'
Then, having sat down in the shade
of three green-leaved palm trees,
while the ass browsed
and the child slept,
the holy travellers slumbered for a while,
lulled by sweet dreams,
and the angels of heaven, kneeling about them,
worshipped the divine child.
Léopold Simoneau (t), Narrator; Choral Art Society, The Little Orchestra, Thomas Scherman, cond. BOMC Classics Record LIbrary, recorded c1957

Part III, The Arrival in Saïs
NARRATOR: For three days, despite the hot winds,
they journeyed through the shifting sands.
The holy family’s poor servant,
the ass, had already fallen in the desert dust;
and long before they saw a city’s walls, his master,
would have died from exhaustion and thirst
but for God’s help.
Only holy Mary
walked on serene and untroubled; and her sweet
child’s fair locks and blessed head, resting against
her breast, seemed to give her strength.
But soon her feet stumbled ...
How many times the couple stopped ...
At length they came
to Saïs, gasping
and near to death.
It was a city that had long been part
of the Roman Empire,
full of cruel folk, with haughty airs.
Hear now of the grievous agony endured so long
by the pilgrims in their search for food and shelter.
Léopold Simoneau (t), Narrator; The Little Orchestra, Thomas Scherman, cond. BOMC Classics Record LIbrary, recorded c1957

And here is a composite of the Narrator's account of the Holy Family's journey.

Part II, "The Repose of the Holy Family"
Part III, "The Arrival in Saïs"

Alain Vanzo (t), Narrator; French National Radio Chorus and Orchestra, Jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s

Last year we dipped farther into L'Enfance, hearing how, at the point of death, the exiled Jewish family, its plight ignored or scorned by everyone else, is taken in unhesitatingly and restored to health by an Ishmaelite family whose supremely humane head of household turns out to be, like Joseph, a carpenter. I suppose you could figure that God steered the family to that Ishmaelite Father -- though of course you would have to say that God also steered the family to the verge of death in the desert. It might be better argued that a sense of human decency and connectedness which is represented by some people's image of God is what inspired the kindness and generosity of the people along the family's perilous journey rally to its support.

Now that's a spirit of Christmas I can get behind. Happy holidays to all!

[English translations of the text of L'Enfance are by David Cairns, from the 2007 LSO Live release of Sir Colin Davis's most recent recording of the piece.]



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