Saturday, December 24, 2016

For Christmas Eve, we hark unto the openings of Berlioz's "Childhood of Christ" and Handel's "Messiah"


In the Sunday Classics era, Christmastime provided a bountiful musical opportunity. Since 2016 brings us a "three-day Christmas" -- Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Christmas holiday celebrated -- I thought I would dip back to 2011, when Sunday Classics had a three-day sequence that began with the openings of Berlioz's oratorio L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) and Handel's eternal Messiah, then zoomed in on that opening tenor solo of Messiah, and finally expanded to encompass the whole of Part I, the only one of Messiah's three parts that is in fact Christmas-connected.

The original plan, of course, was just to paste the contents of the three original posts into new blogfiles. Alas, for all sorts of reasons that wasn't possible. Behind the scenes, for starters, all of the audio clips, every one of them had to be reformatted -- that is, once I figured out how to reformat them. For that matter, substantial portions of the texts of these posts had to be reformatted thanks to the Googlified software's fondness for eating up line breaks in older posts. Then, as noted below, a video clip had disappeared. On the bright side, my MIA-in-2011 CD copy of Colin Davis's first Messiah recording (the good one) has resurfaced, and will be pressed into heavy service on Monday. And on and on. The upshot is that, while I've tricked to stick as close as possible to the 2011 posts as possible, a fair amount of the 2016 versions is not only updated but brand new.

In the manger at this time Jesus had just been born,
but no wonder had yet made him known.
And already the powerful were trembling;
already the weak were hoping.
Everyone was waiting.

Now learn, Christians, what a monstrous crime
was suggested to the King of the Jews by terror.
And the celestial warning that in their humble stable
was sent to the parents of Jesus by the Lord.

Michel Sénéchal (t), Narrator; Orchestre des Concerts Colonne, Pierre Dervaux, cond. Adès, recorded 1959

Jean Giraudeau (t), Narrator; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. Pathé/Vox, recorded in the early '50s

Cesare Valletti (t), Narrator; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA, recorded Dec. 23-24, 1956

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (t), Narrator; English Chamber Orchestra, Philip Ledger, cond. ASV, recorded 1986
NOTE: These audio files were made, not for the 2011 post being revived here but for a later post. Since we're not returning to that later post anyway, I've folded these performances of the Opening Narration in here to replace a now-vanished video clip of the early numbers of L'Enfance du Christ. For more about the "new" clips of the Opening Narration, see below.
by Ken

Don't tell Bill O'Reilly, but I'm not a Christmas person. People don't come much more secular than me. But there are things about the Christmas season that I respond to, and Sunday Classics actually has several Christmas traditions. We do Tchaikovsky, and in particular the ballets -- a tradition carried forward with last week's first-ever Sunday Classics complete Nutcracker. [This was 2011, remember. The DWT complete Nutcracker became a mini-tradition itself for a couple of years.] And we do two altogether extraordinary works, which we've been prodding and poking at for years now: Handel's Messiah and Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ).

As it happens, both Messiah (following its overture) and L'Enfance kick off with tenor solos, each of which is for me one of the most meaningful, most powerful pieces of music I know. We have, in fact, dealt with both of them in past years, and we're going to be dealing with them again this week and next. But for tonight, I thought it might be fun to hear them sung by the same tenor.

Of course there wouldn't be much point if the tenor wasn't much good. But it occurred to me that we could accomplish this with a pretty good tenor indeed, Nicolai Gedda -- not one of my very favorite singers, but a good one, with a high degree of stylistic adaptability and and ability to sing effectively in more languages than any singer I can think of. (You'll notice that in "Comfort ye," for the phrase we normally hear as "saith your God," he carefully and precisely sings, each time, "sayeth two syllables] your God.") I don't know whether it qualifies as irony that for this quintessentially English and quintessentially French music, we're turning -- where else? -- to a Swede. These are both highly accomplished performances, which we're going to hear in the click-through.

2016 UPDATE: In 2011 there was actually a second week of "Christmas" posts, in which, having listened more closely to the opening tenor solo and then the whole of Part I of Messiah, which we're going to do again tomorrow and Monday, respectively, we proceeded to do the same with L'Enfance du Christ; this year, though, I'm afraid we're going no farther into L'Enfance than the Opening Narration. In the click-through -- new for 2016 -- I'm going to say a little about our opening assortment of performances of the Opening Narration of L'Enfance

We can proceed just as soon as you click through!


One difference between our two works is that Messiah, like any well-behaved baroque oratorio, opens with an orchestral overture, or "symphony," and so we're going to include that, from the same recording as the Nicolai Gedda "Comfort ye" and "Every valley" -- conducted by Otto Klemperer in a now-ritually-frowned-upon old-fashioned style, broad and heavily slurred, and yet carrying conviction and even some eloquence.

L'Enfance du Christ, by contrast, has no introduction beyond what we hear here. This roughly two-minute introduction is the entire self-contained prologue, which leads directly into Part I of the oratorio, "Herod's Dream."

HANDEL: Messiah

Nicolai Gedda and Otto Klemperer

No. 1. Symphony

No. 2. Accompagnato, tenor, "Comfort ye, my people" 
No. 3, Air, tenor, "Every valley shall be exalted"
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
-- Isaiah XL:1-3
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
-- Isaiah XL:4

Nicolai Gedda, tenor (in Nos. 2-3); Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1965

BERLIOZ: L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), Op. 25: Opening Narration
In the manger at this time Jesus had just been born,
but no wonder had yet made him known.
And already the powerful were trembling;
already the weak were hoping.
Everyone was waiting.

Now learn, Christians, what a monstrous crime
was suggested to the King of the Jews by terror.
And the celestial warning that in their humble stable
was sent to the parents of Jesus by the Lord.

Nicolai Gedda (t), Narrator; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded c1966


Given my abiding admiration for Cesare Valletti, I'm surprised to report that his is my least favorite performance in this group. Not that it's not well sung; it is. But it's the very prettiness, the approach to the text and music via something akin to Mario Lanza-like lyrical refulgence which immediately strikes such a wrong note for me -- when I hear L'Enfance attacked so singsongily, I tend to dread the worst: sentimentalized pseudo-religious piffle. Oh, there's plenty of sentiment in the piece, but never, to my mind, anything resembling sentimentalizing; this is a tough-minded story of survival-or-not, and the Narrator clearly sets the tone. And in fairness to Valletti, it does appear that sentimentalized pseudo-religious piffle is kind of what conductor Charles Munch has in mind for.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson shows some good instincts here. I get the feeling that he might have benefited from clearer direction away from singsongification from his conductor, Philip Ledger. Both Michel Sénéchal and Jean Giraudeau have the advantage of tougher-minded conductors (Pierre Dervaux verges on the rough-and-tumble; he has his ascetic little orchestra sounding here rather like a hurdy-gurdy, or maybe an accordion, a not-at-all-inappropriate effect), and both sing affectingly yet with a clear appreciation that they aren't intoning romantic balladry or (worse) treacly religious homily, they're telling a story. In which connection both take good advantage of singing in their own language.

French singers who actually sing French well have a way of reminding us of what a beautifully if difficultly beauitful language it is for singing. Both Sénéchal and Giraudeau can achieve, via both easy command of the language (which came especially naturally to the former, a career character tenor) and clear vocal choices, the startling, crucial transformation at "Et le céleste avis," and especially the heart-warming (or heart-breaking? heart-somelthing, anyways) rise-and-fall on "que dans leur humble étable."

What about Nicolai Gedda? Well, it's a singsongier approach than I'd like -- noticeably more so than what André Cluytens had elicited from Giraudeau in his earlier L'Enfance recording. That said, I find myself now quite enjoying Gedda's performance. He's got some good story-telling instincts, and his reputation for singing effectively in French was well earned. It's not on a par with the best French singers, but it is in fact considerably better than what most French singers manage. Combine that with his effective sung English in the Klemperer Messiah, and he rates a double-plus for making words -- foreign words, at that -- a singer's friend rather than foe.

And that said, the best L'Enfance Narrator I've heard is Alain Vanzo, in the late-'60s (I think) French Radio recording conducted by Jean Martinon which I've never encountered in any form except the American Nonesuch LP release. (I've never been able to track down an actual date.) Though I have two LP copies, I'm sorry to say that the disc surfaces weren't good enough to permit me to do an adequate dub. It would be nice if somebody found access to and clearance to issue the master tape.


Tomorrow, Christmas Day (actual) we take our closer look at the Messiah tenor accompagnato "Comfort ye," and then on Monday, Christmas (actually, er, celebrated), we'll have our composite presentation of the whole of Part I of Messiah.

Labels: , , , , ,


At 6:32 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

Merry Christmas Ken & everyone at DWT thank you for your incredible activism & around the clock work for progressives & our candidates everywhere non stop.

At 8:22 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, ap215! And back at you!


At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give me Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" music, Torme's Christmas song and the Carpenters album along with "grown up Christmas list" by anyone and I'm good.

Though I appreciate the quality of the religious music, I just can't listen any more. Religion is the cancer that will kill mankind if climate change takes too long.


Post a Comment

<< Home