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Schumann, Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri), Laura Aikin (soprano); Kristine Jepson (mezzo soprano), Christoph Présgardien (tenor), Bojan Knezevic (bass), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony, Ingo Metzmacher, conductor, Davies Hall, San Francisco, February 16, 2005 (HS)

Robert Schumann is a staple of the lieder repertoire. The composer was a master of the song form, telling marvelous stories, painting colorful pictures in words and music. We don't hear much of his larger-scale vocal works, such as the seldom-performed oratorio, Paradise and the Peri, written in 1843. As he attempted to expand the song form into a larger work, he had the jump on Wagner in his ability to blur the lines between the songs and the connecting material so that it feels like one long arc instead of a series of numbers. And the delicate etching of images with music and words that makes his songs so special emerges, at least fitfully, in several episodes.

But it's easy to tell why traversals of this hour-and-a-half-long oratorio are so rare. The cheesy libretto lacks the subtlety and sweep of the music and, frankly, could make sensitive souls cringe. Based on a segment of Thomas Moore's 1812 poem, Lala Rookh, an artifact of the 19th-century fascination with things Oriental, it embroiders on the tale of a peri, a Persian spirit. Despite being ineligible for entry into heaven because of its flawed lineage, the peri manages to get past heaven's gatekeeper by bringing him certain ineffable gifts "prized to heaven." She falls short of solving the riddle with her first two discoveries - the last drop of blood from a warrior who died defending his homeland and the last breath of a lover who suffers a plague to die with her beloved. In appropriate fairy-tale form, she finally succeeds with the third, the tears of a lifelong criminal repenting at the sight of a praying child.

Fortunately, Schumann's music transcends this maudlin tale. In the hands of conductor Ingo Metzmacher, whose appearances with the San Francisco Symphony are now eagerly awaited for the clarity and detail he brings to the music, Schumann's scene painting reveals a rigor that could easily slip into kitsch. The gauzy sound of the strings, the seed from which each scene grows, feels wispy but not too sweet. The hollow chords in the scene of the plagued lovers ring like echoes instead of challenging the ear. If the joyful chorus at the end, which sounds like an echo of Beethoven's finale to Fidelio, fails to reach ecstatic heights, it gives the chorus a chance to exult with impressively detailed singing.

If anything, Metzmacher erred on the side of subtlety instead of emphasizing the contrasts between the quiet scenes and more exuberant moments. Schumann, after all, was a high romantic, and this occasionally sounds like it might have been written by Mozart or Mendelssohn. The beauty is in the small moments, so, if the overall effect falls a bit short of mesmerizing, at least there were plenty of individual sections that make the whole thing worth experiencing.

Soprano Laura Aikin's silvery, pear-like sound and pinpoint intonation made the Peri's light, lyrical lines a joy to hear. Although Metzmacher occasionally let the orchestra cover some of her phrases, she managed to float the music beautifully. Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson shaped the Angel's music with a real sense of the line's shape. There were also strong contributions from bass Bojan Knezevic and tenor Christoph Présgardien.

Harvey Steiman



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)