In this LSO Live release, Sir Simon Rattle puts into convincing effect his long-standing advocacy for Schumann’s neglected work, Das Paradies und die Peri, which he calls a great masterpiece. Some may beg to differ with its story about a fallen angelic spirit who seeks her way back to Paradise perhaps now striking a tone of sentimentality and effete exoticism (it sets the German translation of a text by the 19th-century Irish writer Thomas Moore – not the Tudor politician and author of Utopia! – modelled upon Persian poetry).
Although termed an Oratorio, it lacks the sort of dramatic narrative usually associated with that form, and its choruses are comparatively few in number – and even then, they are largely syllabic settings rather than elaborate contrapuntal edifices as in examples composed, or inspired, by Handel, and hence this may have led to its decline in popularity since Schumann’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Wagner was a great admirer, and with its focus on clear word-setting and each of its three parts comprising a more or less continuous flow, one can see it as, in some sense, a prototype of the form of music-drama.
One wonders whether Wagner had the work in mind when composing Die Walküre, as the upward arpeggio figure for the Nile Spirits presages the famous theme for the Valkyries (it is even in the same key of B-minor), and in a later section there is a yearning figure which is remarkably similar to the motif usually associated with the love of the Volsung twins. However that may be, Schumann’s work bears a lyricism and refinement of orchestration that is comparable to Mendelssohn, and rather less like the denser textures of his own Symphonies.
Simon Rattle deftly maintains an account of clarity and translucence, bringing out the delicate beauty of the score, and the vulnerability of the Peri’s fallen state as she goes out in search of what will gain her re-admittance to Paradise. That is evident right from the start, with the vibrato-less, light touch manner of the strings in the introduction, and the subsequent mellow integration of the woodwinds. Whether deliberately or not, there are times when the sopranos and altos of the London Symphony Chorus sing with the innocence and naïveté of a school choir (if not of course with any lack of technical proficiency). Perhaps surprisingly the recording bears a close comparison with John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
Rattle’s interpretation is at least as good, and certainly there is also drama and excitement later, but this does not disturb the overall effect of contemplation and sense of inner, spiritual exploration. Sally Matthew traces the Peri’s journey, coming to sound more assured and musically more rounded in Part Three as she attains her goal, though she is radiant throughout. Similarly lustrous is Mark Padmore’s account of the Narrator, never sounding uninvolved as he tells the story from a more detached perspective – not unlike that of the roles with which he is greatly familiar, the Evangelist in J. S. Bach Passions.
Florian Boesch sings with a somewhat reedy edge in his Part Three solo, but otherwise he, like the other soloists (which includes Bernarda Fink, as in Gardiner’s version), rise to the occasion with sympathy and subtle allure. The recording (given in both SACD and Blu-ray format) manages to capture the detail of the score with an engaging sense of space, and so this LSO Live issue is an eloquent introduction to a delectable rarity.