In the advance publicity, Karen Cargill, the superb mezzo who is featuring so heavily in the current SCO season, was front and centre. After the concert it's a little tricky to see why. That's not to say that she didn't sing beautifully, she absolutely did, but so too did Matthew Rose, Yann Beuron and Ronan Collett, not to mention the chorus, on fabulous form, and the exemplary playing of the orchestra; it's not as though Mary is a show stealing part.
Anyone who knew only the Symphonie Fantastique and was expecting a big orchestra and lots of razzamatazz would have been surprised. L'enfance du Christ may lack the out and out fireworks of pieces like The Damnation of Faust or Romeo and Juliet, or the epic forces of the Requiem, but it has something else very special indeed: it is one and a half hours of sublime beauty. That's not to say it isn't without some flashes of fire, such as during the march that follows the prologue or some of Herod's scenes, but they are few and far between and not the overriding impression the work leaves you with.
I never think French is the easiest language to sing in, and when done badly (Abbado's DG recording of Don Calros, I'm looking at you) it grates like nails on a blackboard. No such problems were present last night. Doubtless Yann Beuron, who sang the narrator, had the advantage of being Francophone by birth, but he was by no means head and shoulders above the rest. Cargill sang as clearly and beautifully as we have come to expect and was nicely complemented by Ronan Collett's Joseph. But for me the outstanding vocal performance of the evening was Matthew Rose's reading of both Herod and the Ishmaelite Father, the former especially chilling.
The chorus, under their recently appointed new master Gregory Batsleer, were on scintillating form (Batsleer, even younger than Ticciati, gets rave reviews from those I know in the chorus, and on the strength of last night seems a shrewd hire). Ticciati showed a Runnicles-esque flair in his placement of them, with the women spending the first part at the very top right of the organ gallery, giving their portrayal of the angels quite literally an added lift.
Throughout Ticciati balanced his forces to perfection. The orchestration was fairly light, more so when the brass and chamber organ left the stage after the first part. Often it felt like it had been written for string ensemble alone, from which he drew such beautiful sounds. The other orchestral stars were the flutes, especially Alison Mitchell, in their sublime trio with the harp, played to perfection. I've said it before, but one thing that really impresses me about Ticciati is his understanding of how less is often more, volume wise, and how, instead of deafening the audience, he brings out wonderful details in the score.
Ticciati had wisely chosen to play through without sapping the drama with an interval. Similarly, he allowed the work to sit in the programme alone. It was a magical hour and a half that required no accompaniment.
The only minor niggles were entirely beyond the control of the artists. The Usher Hall were doing their normal bang up incompetent job (no, I don't mean the fact that the temporary seat number signs are still wrong, nor the fact that the new hand rails clash with the existing safety rails): the house lights were dimmed such that it was very hard to read the text and it took until midway through scene four before they thought to turn them up a bit. I wouldn't mind, but this is a repeated problem at the Usher Hall. Listen Karl Chapman (general manager), it's not rocket science: if there's a sung text that isn't in English, we need the house lights on a bit. That and the fidgety woman next to me who seemed to think all Berlioz's orchestration wanted was an annoying jangling arm bracelet which hopefully won't trouble the Radio 3 broadcast you should all tune into in a month's time. Those in Glasgow and Aberdeen should try and catch the repeat performances.
Can't wait or make those? Well, Cargill, Rose and Beuron can all be heard on Colin Davis's rather fine LSO Live recording.