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Berlioz in Edinburgh

11 November 2016

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I HAVE delighted in Berlioz’s music since I was a teenager, when I attended my first performance of his L’Enfance du Christ. I was keen to revisit it in a recent performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

This work is in three parts: Herod’s Dream, The Flight into Egypt, and The Arrival at Saïs. They do not hang together very convincingly. David Cairn’s erudite programme note offered the reason why: Berlioz wrote it piecemeal between the years 1850-54.

The conductor, Emmanuel Krivine, and the vocal soloists, Christianne Stotijn, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Bernard Richter, and Jérôme Varnier were a well-knit team, all having much experience of the French performing style.

The SCO’s orchestral playing and the singing of their chorus were first-rate throughout. The vocal soloists gave animated accounts of their texts, and blended and balanced when singing with each other.

On paper, and in the Usher Hall, the performance was destined to be really good. In the moment it was. There was, however, one problem, and it was repeated several times. Orchestral players, chorus members, and even soloists were allowed to leave the platform when they were no longer needed. There was also an interval of 20 minutes between parts two and three.

All of the above caused the work to lack a true sense of narrative and dramatic progress. I recall a sequence of highlights: the prologue to Part 1, the Nocturnal March, the Shepherds’ Farewell (repeated for our delectation), and finally the Trio for two flutes and harp.

In conclusion, this was a fine and stylish, but ultimately blemished performance. The many pauses to facilitate departures and arrivals of performers to and from the platform robbed it of the opportunity of being an unqualified success.

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