Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sunday Classics, Christmas Day edition: In Berlioz's telling, unto us a child is saved


by Ken

"For unto us a child is born," as we heard again in yesterday's Christmas Eve tribute to Handel's Messiah, and in both Handel's and Berlioz' celebration of this Christmas miracle the emphasis is clearly on the birth of "a child," with all the possibilities and hope the birth of every child represents.

Berlioz' Childhood (which we can also think of as "Infancy") of Christ is usually treated as if it were a simple bit of treacly sentimentality, but it seems to me one of the toughest-minded (if warmest-hearted) as well as elusive of Berlioz' characteristically elusive masterpieces. We've been poking at it for a couple of Christmas seasons now -- in 2008 and 2009.

We've seen, by now a lot, that Hector Berlioz was a compulsive inventor. Almost every time he imagined a major work, he invented a form (or, more accurately, a set of forms) for it. The result isn't easy for performers, as we saw, for example, with the extraordinary first part of his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette, in which a semi-chorus functions as narrator, telling the whole story (with careful guest interjections) in a sort of chanting mode the composer concocted for the occasion.

Narration is a major issue in The Childhood of Christ as well. The tenor Narrator sings to us three times: before Part I, at the end of Part II, and at the start of Part III. We focused on the narration last year, and I'm going to plunge right into the amazing Opening Narration, where the tenor's lines, which have to be sung musically and beautifully without lapsing into the "sing-songy," minutely track the import of the horrific and miraculous doings they relate, while the modest orchestra is layered to suggest a wheezing church organ.

BERLIOZ: L'Enfance du Christ:
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.
Jean Giraudeau, tenor; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. Pathé/Vox, recorded 1951



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