'Tis the Season
Hector Berlioz: L'Enfance du Christ
Stephanie Blythe (Mary)
Paul Groves (narrator)
Sanford Sylvan (Joseph)
John Cheek (Herod)
New York Concert Singers
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Charles Mackerras (conductor)
“Most of it is so simple, so restrained in color and form, that I don’t see how I could find singers here capable of performing it faithfully…”
Hector Berlioz, letter to his sister Adele, August 27, 1854
The inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall on May 5, 1891 centered about a rather unlikely work of music. Having paid Tchaikovsky to journey all the way from St. Petersburg, it seems strange that the management only had him conduct his Coronation March that evening. The rest of the program, led by Walter Damrosch, consisted of the Leonore Overture # 3 (you would think that The Consecration of the House might have been a more appropriate choice) and the Te Deum of Hector Berlioz. Headed for obscurity even then, this work trumpets the composer’s own esoteric view of French Catholicism, an equal mixture of sensuality and piety most eloquently expressed in the 20th century in the fictions of Mauriac, and does not capture the universality which has vaulted the Requiem into the mainstream of musical thought post Berlioz. The presence of the most famous Russian of his era and the featuring of an epistle from the Gallic church also seem bizarrely out of place at a time when concert halls and operatic theaters in this city vied for the status of being labeled as either Italian or German “houses”. The 1890’s in New York were rife with internecine musical wars and witnessed the emergence of great Wagnerian heroes such as the Bayreuth master’s own acolyte Anton Seidl (the later choice of Gustav Mahler as director of the Philharmonic Symphony Society was another salvo in this battle). Perhaps Carnegie’s opening night choice was an attempt (destined to fail) at artistic neutrality.
110 years after, the selection of the present triptych is still a brave one. This quiet and gentle work, framed in its passivity to be a true Imitation of Christ, has never caught on with a thrill-seeking public. The same composer who could dazzle with antiphonal brass choirs and multiple timpani in other religious and patriotic works (the lines between these two subjects blur significantly in Berlioz) here eschews orchestral brilliance in favor of general tranquility. The challenge for the performers is to put over this quietude as solemn rather than soporific. One technique for success, borrowed from Vladimir Horowitz, was to hold this particular convocation on a Sunday afternoon, rather than on a weekday evening when the accumulated fatiguing effects of a long New York day could swing the balance of power from Orpheus to Morpheus.
The best way to keep this work interesting is to mount an exceptional performance. The fine Orchestra of St. Luke’s and their former principal conductor Charles Mackerras did just that yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Keeping the volume level consistently low, Sir Charles created a suitably ethereal world of sound, so thoroughly placid that one could hear the rustle of the desert wind each time the audience turned the pages of its paper text. Tenor Paul Groves was especially impressive as the narrator, his stentorian instrument easily reaching the farthest and cheapest seats. Mr. Groves is presenting his Lincoln Center recital next Sunday and I am now certainly looking forward to it with enthusiasm. John Cheek was a harried Herod, tormented, like Boris Goudonov, by dreams of a child. The couple in question, mezzo Stephanie Blythe and baritone Sanford Sylvan, were lyrical lovers, their passion on a turbulent but permanent half boil, although one wishes for a nuit d’ivresse which never occurs, for this would play too fast and loose with the Immaculate Conception. The orchestra played beautifully throughout, settling in to the whispers and tiny utterances which are the meat of this unusual piece. The women of the chorus were stationed in the upper sections of the auditorium for this first part, their angelic voices mysteriously distant but distinct.
It would be hyperbolic to state that the second section, The Flight into Egypt, is often excerpted, but, on those rare occasions when one part of this oratorio is presented as a fragment, it is this most user-friendly movement. Complete with overture, this positively cinematic depiction of travel and travail is essentially an orchestral work with vocal obbligato along the lines of Berlioz’ groundbreaking dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet. Here the instrumental ensemble really shone, presenting the drama straining to break free from its velvet fetters, the dynamic range only from piano to pianissimo. The third section was most notable for its lovely mixed choral singing and its Glueckian trio for two flutes and harp, the ballet scene, if you will, in this opera of the mind. But no matter how splendid the performance, within the total output of this revolutionary composer, so influenced by Shakespeare, this particular opus remains a “problem play”. Even Berlioz scholars and biographers tend to become apologists for it and, although it contains some of his most rebellious writing, including passages in 7/4 time and modes not heard since before the Renaissance, ultimately this is such a quiet statement of faith that it can easily get lost in our age of boisterous apostasy. All the more reason to be appreciative of such a dignified and professional effort as this one. It isn’t always necessary to shout from the rooftops when creating a joyful noise.
Frederick L. Kirshnit