A close to the church of St Martin-aux-Champs, in the National Gallery, you can see what the old Flemish painters did with the story of the flight of the holy family to Egypt. Here with John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra giving their first concert in their new original hall, one could hear Berlioz’s point of view.
L’Enfance du Christ is full of Berlioz’s characteristic mood swings and grandiose and colorful gestures: it is an oratorio that sounds as if it desperately wanted to be an opera, perfect for period winds and brass instruments of character. from Gardiner’s orchestra and for the high-level cast of soloists he had assembled here. Michael Spyres’ beaming narrator, Ann Hallenberg’s beatific Mary and Lionel Lhote’s desperate but noble Joseph – it would have been good to hear more about all three, but Berlioz doesn’t put the emphasis on just one soloist . The small roles were occupied by singers from the choir; Alexander Ashworth did a particularly striking job of the Ishmaelite welcoming the family.
Only William Thomas’ Herod appeared less than bossy, sounding a bit woody as he sang Herod’s awake monologue, regardless of his hollow and velvety voice. But it is perhaps not so inappropriate for the troubled leader that Berlioz paints so vividly in the orchestra. The violins imitated the phrases of his tune with such fervor that one almost felt sorry for him.
The way the choir sang the farewell to the shepherds made it seem like it was almost like a shared prayer in this church setting, and the angels, sung by the Trinity Boys Choir from somewhere beyond the balcony, had their tingling effect on the spine. As for the musical entertainment offered to the Holy Family in their new home, Gardiner sat down and let the trio take care of it – and it was beautifully and energetically performed by flautists Gareth Davies and David Westcombe and the harpist Gwyneth. Wentink.
The concert was being filmed, which was low-key until the end, when Gardiner a few times restarted sections immediately after a stained entry. Was it to get these perfect for the final cut? It was barely noticeable – but how can we experience a performance entirely in the moment if the conductor clearly isn’t?