Recently Harmonia Mundi has been rereleasing many of its earlier recordings in a series called hmGold; and, within that series, the hmGold Double collection consists of 2-CD sets of particular note. One of last month’s releases in the latter collection is of a 1997 recording of L’enfance du Christ (the childhood of Christ) by Hector Berlioz. This is basically a nineteenth-century take on traditional oratorio form, although Berlioz himself described it as a “sacred trilogy” (Trilogie sacrée). He chose that phrase because the composition consists of three distinct sections providing a narrative of the events unfolding in the wake of the Nativity story. The first concerns Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judaea and the angelic order to Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with their child. The second (and shortest) part consists of a “Shepherds’ Farewell” chorus (which began as an organ composition and is the earliest music in the work), followed by a narrated account of “The Repose of the Holy Family” in the desert. The third part takes place in Sais, where, as in the Nativity narrative, the Family cannot find shelter until, in this case, they are taken in by a kindly Ishmaelite, who, like Joseph, is a carpenter. Berlioz himself provided the texts for the libretto.
The vocal parts alternate between enactment of the characters in the narrative and commentary, primarily by shepherds and angels. Each part ends with a chorus on a “sacred word:” “Hosanna” for the first part, “Hallelujah” for the second, and “Amen” for the third. Instrumental resources are, for the most part, modest; and the brass section is reserved only for the ravings of Herod. In other words this is very quiet Berlioz, likely to be considered an oxymoron for those who think of him as a composer whose instrumentation could be counted on to not only pull out all the stops but also conjure up some new ones in the process.
On this recording the conductor is Philippe Herreweghe conducting five vocalists (Veronique Gens, Paul Agnew, Olivier Lallouette, Laurent Naouri, and Frédéric Caton), the Orchestra de Champs-Élysées, and a chorus consisting of members of La Chapelle Royale and the Collegium Vocale Ghent. Herreweghe tends to be better known for his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach (and probably his forerunners). This allows him to approach this particular Berlioz composition in terms of its low-key recognition of earlier forms without neglecting the more modernist approaches taken to melodic line, counterpoint, and harmonic progressions. The result is a welcome account of music from the sacred repertoire that receives relatively little attention, probably because it never really forces that attention from listeners. Taken for what it is, however, the work is an admirably effective reflection on episodes from the Gospels that receive relatively little attention.