Simon Rattle’s Committed Advocacy for a Schumann Rarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Das Paradies und die Peri: Soloists, London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 11.1.2015 (MB)

Peri – Sally Matthews (soprano)
Narrator – Mark Padmore (tenor)
Kate Royal (soprano)
Bernarda Fink (contralto)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Florian Boesch (bass)
Francesca Chiejina, Eliszabeth Skinner, Bianca Andrew, Emily Kyte (soprano quartet: Peris)


Simon Rattle clearly has a soft spot for Das Paradies und die Peri, having conducted it with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as having chosen it as a Desert Island Disc. Each to his own, I suppose. There is some wonderful music here and the work has clearly been treated unfairly; there is certainly no reason to feel anything but gratitude for this rare outing and fine performance. However, I cannot imagine any conceivable circumstances in which I might prefer it over the St Matthew Passion, Tristan, or a host of other works. Thank goodness, though, that Schumann set a text in German some way ‘after’ Thomas Moore, rather than Moore’s own ghastly Lalla Rookh. To describe the latter as ‘flowery’ would be so much of an understatement as to mislead; indeed, when, on occasion, my eye wandered across the programme booklet page to see the English version of the text, it swiftly turned back to the German, far more readily comprehensible, let alone palatable. Even in the German, moreover, it is difficult to bring oneself to care about the rather trite moralism. This is no Tannhäuser, let alone Parsifal, although, to be fair, the poem never sinks to the level of poor Weber’s Euryanthe, let alone Oberon. Fortunately, however, I soon found myself (more or less) able to enjoy the musical setting without troubling oneself too much about the words either way.

Rattle’s direction of his forces was generally astute, the reservations I felt pertaining to points of detail – this conductor’s over-emphasis upon certain ‘interesting’ details so often his Achilles heel – rather than to anything more fundamental. The LSO, as so often, was on excellent form, the dramatic tension of the performance so clearly founded here, just as it should have been. For instance, the orchestral throbbing heard, cellos surely echoing Der Freischütz, in the Angel’s ‘Dir, Kind des Stamms’ proved both attractive and dramatically telling in itself, but also an incitement for what was to come. Flexibility in the Peri’s following ‘Wo find’ich sie?’ was highly commendable too. Echoes of Berlioz were to be heard in the chorus, ‘Doch seine Ströme sind jetzt tot’, reminding us of the orchestra’s second-to-none pedigree in that composer’s music under Sir Colin Davis. (Indeed, I could not help but wonder what Davis might have made of this oratorio; Rattle’s occasional fussiness would surely have been avoided.) I wish that Rattle had not driven so hard in the final number of Part One, especially when the chorus was singing; he proved far more considerate, as has often been his way, as an ‘accompanist’ to the solo singers. But the orchestral playing and the singing of the London Symphony Chorus were outstanding, putting me in mind of the close to the first part of The Creation, another work these forces performed with such distinction under Sir Colin. Brahms, too, seemed to beckon.

A point of ‘detail’ in which Rattle’s approach was most welcome was the darkness of the orchestral interlude in the Narration, no.12, following ‘Kein sterblich Aug’ hat je/Ein Land gesehn voll höh’rer Pracht!’ The darkness of the words to come, so strongly in contrast, was tellingly foretold. There was great charm to the chorus with which the third part opens; it came across in a similar vein to spinning choruses such as those in Haydn, Weber, and Wagner. Wagner again, this time Das Rheingold, sounded clearly prefigured following the bass solo, ‘Mit ihrer Schwestern Worten’. It is a sad commentary upon our ‘authenticke’ times that the extraordinary neo-Bachian solo at the opening of Peri’s ‘Es fällt ein Tropfen aus Land’ was met with what was surely Rattle’s conception of minimising, though thankfully not eliminating vibrato; as if what mattered about Bach, let alone about Schumann’s response to him, were some alien form of puritanism. But that did not last long, strings warming as the number progressed. The sharpness of the general ‘dramatic’ trajectory, insofar as the poem permits there to be one, certainly seemed greater as the work progressed, although Rattle again, in the final ‘Chorus of the Blessed Spirits’, seemed to confuse driving hard with ‘drama’ as such. Speeding up throughout the number sounded a little too much like having misunderstood Furtwängler’s lessons. Still, the LSO and Chorus remained on scintillating form.

Most of the solo singing was excellent too. The only real exception was Kate Royal, her Maiden as dull and featureless as her disengaged countenance. Many of the words were quite incomprehensible, and her tone proved surprisingly squally. The orchestra, however, remained full of Romantic wonder. Otherwise, there were few grounds for complaint. If, at times earlier on, Mark Padmore’s Narrator sounded a little ‘old’, there was no gainsaying the intelligence of his way with the words. And by the time we had come to his solo just before the end of the second part, ‘Sie wankt – sie sinkt,’ his style seemed to have adjusted, sounding spot on for Schumann. His contributions in the third part were ‘narration’ in the best sense: emphatic, but certainly not overly so. I heard some people complain about Sally Matthews’s diction, but have to say that was not a problem for me. (These things can often be partly a matter of where one is seated.) The sincerity of her contribution and the musicality of her response to the words were for me quite enchanting: certainly the best performance I have heard from her. Bernarda Fink’s Angel solo in the Third Part was almost worth the price of admission on its own, her opening ‘Noch nicht!’ poised and pivotal: putting me in mind a little of the crucial turning-point, albeit given to soprano, in Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony. (That was far from the only point at which Mendelssohn sprang to mind, both that work and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the second part’s opening number.) Andrew Staples was on fine form, his tenor wonderfully sappy, every inch a Tamino. Florian Boesch, if sometimes a little dry of tone, offered undoubted intelligence in his response to words and music alike. The mixed vocal quartet of the first part brought welcome echoes of The Magic Flute. Last but certainly not least, the female quartet from the Guildhall revealed four singers – Francesca Chiejina, Eliszabeth Skinner, Bianca Andrew, Emily Kyte – full of character, every one of them vastly superior to the bafflingly ubiquitous Royal. I should not be surprised to hear more in the coming years from all of them.

The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and UK readers can access the recording for 30 days from the date of transmission by clicking here.

Mark Berry