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L'enfance du Christ (1966)

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Cast

Credited cast:
John McCollum ...
Narrator and Centurion (tenor)
Florence Kopleff ...
Theodore Uppman ...
Donald Gramm ...
Donald Meaders ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
The Boston Symphony Orchestra ...
Orchestra
Radcliffe Choral Society ...
Choir
Harvard Glee Club ...
Choir
Charles Münch ...
Conductor
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13 December 1966 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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Perhaps not the most dramatic or passionate of 'L'Enfance Du Christ', but certainly the most poetic
13 July 2016 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

'L'Enfance Du Christ', best known for the "L'Adieu Des Bergers" (or its English title the popular "Shepherds Farewell"), has an emotionally powerful story and some of Berlioz's loveliest music.

It is perhaps among his lightest and most accessible post-'Symphonie Fantastique' works, with the work omitting the slaughter of the children it's not as heavy subject-matter wise as something like the Requiem or 'La Damnation Du Faust' and the orchestration is not as large, but "L'Adieu Des Bergers" and Herod's "Misere Des Rois" are not just rich in beautiful music but also in emotion and Berlioz's extraordinary gift for orchestration is always present.

This is a very good performance indeed of 'L'Enfance Du Christ'. There is not much actually here that's wrong, apart from some of the French pronunciation being a bit dubious and when it is right there is somewhat of a stilted feeling and like it had been processed phonetically or something. It's noticeable most with John McCollum and in particular the chorus. While the performance is certainly not devoid at all of either drama or passion, Donald Gramm and Florence Kopleff actually give quite a lot even when in a space that doesn't allow one to be full on operatic, there are recordings that just give a little more of it like Sir Colin Davis' for instance.

However, for a 60s performance in black and white this is a very well presented DVD. The sound is surprisingly good, with little of the compression, muffles or lack of balance that can be issues with mono, while the black and white photography is remarkably clear and focused with no blurring or strange movements and the video directing allows one to get to know the orchestra, conductor and singers without any innocuous close-ups of a woodwind member's fingers for example.

Charles Munch specialised in Berlioz (like Davis did) and that comes through loud and clear here, with a mastery of structure, meticulous detail and orchestral colour which would definitely have pleased Berlioz as those things mattered a lot to him (he was especially a devil when it came to detail). Sure, he does take "L'Adieu Des Bergers" quite briskly, though none of its transcendent beauty or wistfulness is lost thankfully. And this reviewer prefers "Misere Des Rois" a little slower but completely understands the tempo for the sake of being comfortable as the aria is hard enough at the tempo that Munch and Gramm took it while not losing the drama and nuance of it. He particularly shines in "Qui Vient?" and "Entrez, Entrez, Pauvres Hébreux", which has briskness and immediacy but also time to breathe.

Under him, the orchestra respond brilliantly, the tone colours are varied but always striking on the ears. They never sound too forceful and never make the music or the story the music is telling too static, this is what this reviewer means when she says that Munch shows a mastery of structure. The chorus do very well, moments of dubious pronunciation aside, it can't have been an easy task for them but they do sound great and seeing as it's a college choir their voices are youthful rather than mature but still very warm and well-blended tonally. They do sing with a lovely poetic quality and great sense of line and musicality, especially in the more intimate sections. They may not have the dramatic individuality or passion of a individualised chorus member on an operatic stage but this is not the occasion or work for it, it was clear from the sound they were making that they were well-prepared and on it.

All the soloists are very fine, the most distinguished being that of Donald Gramm, a wonderful artist who was criminally under-recorded due to limited career exposure in Europe and died too young. He is a poised Polydorus and an authoritative Father, but it's Herod where he particularly excels with a particularly nuance-and-pathos-filled "Misere Des Rois" (one of those rarities whether you sort of sympathise with a tyrant), while not downplaying the fire of his outbursts. His beautiful voice and impeccable, almost aristocratic, musicianship come through brilliantly.

Florence Kopleff not only has a warm, rich voice but sings with a lot of intelligence and connection to the text, which makes her a poignant Mary. She is particularly striking in "O Mon Cher Fils". John McCollum sings with sweetness, force and sincerity with a good command of the text if not always the idiomacy of the text. Theodore Uppman is a nobly voiced and sturdy Joseph, he and Kopleff blend beautifully in their duet together.

Overall, poetic and beautifully performed, as well as often moving, if not THE most dramatic or passionate performance of 'L'Enfance Du Christ' around. Serves as a great document of Munch and a rare chance to see Gramm on film. 8/10 Bethany Cox


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