Thursday, December 25, 2008

And for Christmas day, our musical offering is Berlioz' always-unexpected "Childhood of Christ"


(from Part II of Berlioz' L'Enfance du Christ, "The Childhood of Christ" -- text by the composer)

He's going away, far from the land
where, in the stable, he first saw day.
Of his father and his mother
may he remain the constant love.
May he grow, may he prosper,
and may he be a good father in his turn.

If ever, among the idolaters,
he comes to experience misfortune,
fleeing the unkind land
may he return to good fortune in our midst.
May the poverty of the shepherd
remain always dear to his heart.

Dear child, may God bless you!
May God bless you, happy couple!
May you never be able to feel
the blows of injustice.
May a good angel warn you
of dangers hanging over you.

by Ken

Once more I'm at the mercy of the clips, but at least this performance of the shepherds' farewells, from a 1966 telecast of the complete L'Enfance du Christ by the Boston Symphony under its former music director, Charles Munch (released on DVD by VAI), isn't as hopelessly sentimentalized as most. Munch was known as a Berlioz specialist, and while his performances may have tended to a certain overripe softness, they did capture the music's basic sense and stature.

Berlioz was a composer of such extraordinary imagination and originality that it's perhaps not surprising when performers try to drag his unique musical constructions back into something conventionally sing-songy. And the "Shepherds' Farewells" is meant to strike a note of the conventional; it's written in a notoriously dittylike meter, 3/8. But Berlioz is always concerned with what lies beneath appearances, especially conventional ones. Try to imagine these farewells sung -- yes, earnestly and with deep concern, but without sloppy sentimentality -- by a band of shepherds gathered to offer this sad but hopeful farewell to a family forced to flee, in order to save the infant son's life, into the unknown of the desert.

It's worth noting that these good shepherds have no sense that there is anything special about this particular newborn, or this particular family. As the narrator has told us in the remarkable opening narration of L'Enfance, "No wonder had yet made [the infant Jesus] known." (At some point we're going to have to come back and talk about this astonishing opening narration -- a mere 30 bars of music, lasting about two minutes, which as a matter of fact I've never heard performed really well.) No, to our shepherds the urgency is simply to save the life of the child.

As I was saying last night about the miracle announced in Handel's "For unto us a child is born," the clear sense is that the miracle is not the child's divinity, but the mere fact of the birth of a child, with all the attendant promise and hope. Actually, I suppose you could say that Berlioz' entire enterprise in L'Enfance is blasphemous, since Joseph is treated throughout as, simply and unequivocally, the baby Jesus' father.

When, eventually, the Holy Family arrives in Sais, on the brink of death from fatigue and starvation, their desperate pleas for help are rebuffed the the Romanized Egyptians who scorn them as "vile Hebrews" -- until one Ishmaelite householder unhesitatingly takes them in and nurtures them back to life. And like nearly everything else in L'Enfance, almost everything in the wonderful scene inside the home of the Ishmaelites is unexpected and unexpectedly miraculous.

In short order a bond is formed between Joseph and the Ishamelite Father as they discover that they're both carpenters. But first comes a moment of delicacy and gentility that's almost unimaginable -- except by Berlioz. The Ishmaelite Father asks his revived guests their names, and Joseph says, "Her name is Mary, I'm Joseph, and we call the child Jesus.

"Jesus!" their host replies. "What a charming name!"

Which is something I think we can all celebrate. And on that note, once again, Merry Christmas!


This is tough. So many Berlioz performances don't even try to get beneath those deceptively simple surfaces (and don't necessarily do that great a job of realizing even those surfaces), and L'Enfance poses the additional difficulty of generally being performed as if it's a simple exercise in Christmas piety, when that's just about the last thing it is.

There hasn't been a recording that really satisfies me. The one that came closest was a sparely recorded French Radio performance issued on LP by Nonesuch, with Jean Martinon conducting, and principal soloists mezzo-soprano Jane Berbie, tenor Alain Vanzo, baritone Claude Cales as Joseph, and bass Roger Soyer as Herod (a rare souvenir of the voice before it dried out). I don't believe that recording has found its way onto CD.

I can report that while I was working on this blogpost, I pulled out the recording by Charles Dutoit with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, with mezzo Susan Graham, tenor John Mark Ainsley, baritone Francois Le Roux as Joseph, and bass Philip Cokorinos as Herod. All I was actually listening for was the amazing two-minute opening narration -- and you know, the Ainsley-Dutoit performance isn't bad! Which is a virtual rave. I don't remember the performance as a whole making much of an impression on me, and I'm a little nervous about rehearing the whole thing, but those first two minutes are at least a good start. (Oops, the recording seems to be out of print! Well, copies do seem to be available. Of course, I'm not exactly recommending it, necessarily.)

Video-wise, though the Munch/Boston performance doesn't break any ground, and probably is less successful as a whole than their earlier RCA studio recording, I can certainly recommend it as a memento of this productive Berlioz collaboration. Throughout the long tenure of Seiji Ozawa, the Boston Symphony remained probably the world's finest Berlioz orchestra (with awfully good recordings of The Damnation of Faust and Romeo et Juliette to show for it.)

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At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Munch was known as a Berlioz specialist, and while his performances may have tended to a certain overripe softness..."

I can't say my experiences with Munch mirror yours. I still love the wonderful intensity he brought to Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in a 1939 recording, with Cortot inspired if technically challenged. Or the astringency he brings to Martinu's Symphony No 6 (EMI Classics 75477). Or the controlled frenzy he finds in Berlioz--on video (VAI 69605) or audio disc (RCA 08280). His Requiem is extraordinary (RCA 66373), and if you can find it, his Symphonie Fantastique on Eloquence 476 7962 with the Budapest SO is maniacal. Munch wasn't a consistent conductor; he rehearsed his ideas, and then let the feeling of the moment dictate just how much of that he implemented, and how much he might go somewhere else, altogether. But he had great stick technique, and when he was on, he was a worldbeater.

And when he was off, he was still better than the likes of Karajan. ;)

At 8:36 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hmm, OK. I guess I should listen to the Budapest Fantastique again. I sure don't remember anything (except the music itself, of course) being "maniacal." And while I like both Munch recordings of the Requiem, sure don't hear any "controlled frenzy" in them, or any of the Munch Berlioz performances I'm familiar with, for that matter. They have important virtues, for which I continue to listen to a lot of them, but that's sure not what I'm hearing.

Thanks for the input.



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