Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (1) – A neglected Schumann oratorio opens the Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schumann, Das Paradies und die Peri:  Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus and soloists Sir Roger Norrington (conductor). Usher Hall, 12. 8.2011 (SRT)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor)
Lydia Teuscher (soprano)
Marie-Claude Chappuis (mezzo)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Florian Boesch (baritone)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Sir Roger Norrington (conductor)

The focus of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is Asia, and it kicked off on Friday evening with what may well have been one of Schumann’s most popular works in his lifetime. Despite the efforts of such persuasive advocates as Gardiner and Harnoncourt, Das Paradies und die Peri is still a neglected work today and it’s not too hard to see why. It’s based on a pretty dreadful early 19th century poem by Irishman Thomas Moore, whose lines often sound like doggerel (“Oh! Am I not happy? I am, I am!”) and its subject matter is high on the slushy mid-Romantic sentimentalism that we often find cloying today. The Peri is the descendant of a fallen angel who will only be admitted into paradise if she can produce the thing that is most dear to heaven. A warrior’s blood and the sigh of a dying maiden won’t do the trick; it takes the tear of a repentant sinner. The Asian link is obvious – the Peri comes from Persian mythology and much of the work is set in Syria or India – but it comes with some fairly absurd Orientalism thrown in, not least in the baritone’s rose-tinted (literally!) description of the orient in Part Three.

Happily, the music goes a long way to redeeming what might otherwise have been left well off the radar of 21st Century listeners. The score moves at a good pace and contains some fantastic splashes of colour, such as in the battle scene of Part One or the Nile Spirits of Part Two. Furthermore, Schumann’s instrumentation skills are at their peak, assigning each scene and episode a very distinctive colour that helps to keep things varied, though the comical ophicleide/tuba that accompanies the sinner and his “dark tales of many a ruthless deed” pushes the boundary of taste fairly close to the ridiculous. There are wonderful moments, though, and the lullaby that ends the second part is one of the best Schumann discoveries I’ve made in a long time.

As befitted the occasion, the Festival had assembled a top-notch cast of singers to do justice to the work. Susan Gritton was a vulnerable, sensitive Peri who managed to hold the centre stage, even if she was a little pressed at the top. Marie-Claude Chappuis’ rich fulsome mezzo doubled as an extremely characterful angel, while the rest of the vocal quartet sang with a good sense of ensemble. The outstanding singer for me was the bright, golden tenor of Maximilian Schmitt, whose honeyed tone meant that the passages of narrative were a joy rather than a chore, though he came dangerously close to being upstaged by the rich, fruity baritone of Florian Boesch, as invigorating as the tyrant as he was as the penitent. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang with conviction, demonstrating their much improved technical expertise in the contrapuntal writing Schumann scatters through the score and always enunciating with enviable clarity.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, though the string tone was emaciated and pale under the hair-shirted direction of Roger Norrington whose vibrato-less austerity threatened at times to lapse into self-parody. Quieter passages, such as the very opening of the work, felt drained of all their colour, though the winds and brass were on excellent form and did a good job of restoring some much needed life to the orchestral sound.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.

Simon Thompson