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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Das Paradies und die Peri, op. 50 (1843) [95:55]
Margaret Price; Oliviera Miljakovic (sopranos); Marjorie Wright (mezzo); Anne Howells (contralto); Werner Hollweg; Carlo Gaifa (tenors); Wolfgang Brendel (baritone); Robert Amis el Hage (bass)
Coro di Roma della RAI/Gianni Lazzari
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 9 February 1974, Auditorium RAI del Foro Italico, Rome
ARTS ARCHIVES 43076-2 [58:50 + 37:05]



After several issues dedicated to Peter Maag and André Cluytens, always chosen with great care for what is really interesting and worth exhuming, Arts Archives’ exploration of the RAI vaults has now arrived at Giulini. Very wisely, they have not gone for an umpteenth version of something he recorded in the studio several times over, but have homed in on a work he did not set down commercially.

Schumann’s large-scale oratorio on Thomas Moore’s poem from Lalla Rookh has enjoyed good press but very few performances over the years. Somehow it seems difficult to persuade the public and concert promoters that the composer of exquisite miniatures, or even of some pretty bracing symphonies, could really cope with anything on this scale.

Yet Giulini clearly took it on as a labour of love and performed it when he could. Many voices were raised in disappointment when his Edinburgh Festival performance was not taken into the studio, but EMI obviously thought it would not sell. Oddly enough Electrola, German EMI, set down the first recording of the work in Düsseldorf at about the same time as Giulini gave the present performance. The Düsseldorf reading was not even issued in the UK at the time and "Das Paradies und die Peri" began to reap a little of the success it deserves only with the issue of Armin Jordan’s award-winning performance on Erato in about 1990. Jordan was quickly followed by Albrecht on Supraphon. Since then we’ve had several more, including Sinopoli and Gardiner.

The recording here is of fairly good quality, though I noticed a high level of background crackles at the start of CD 2. These soon subsided. Some soloists seem closer to the microphones than others – or else some project their tone better than others – but on the whole I think we should not expect more from a live relay of more than thirty years ago.

Some may be fearing that the quality of the orchestra will wreck the whole enterprise. Giulini, as is his wont, appears at the beginning more interested in obtaining eloquent phrasing than tight ensemble. But ensemble, for Giulini, always did mean having everybody feel the music together, something far deeper than just playing it together. As the work proceeds the orchestra yields to his spell, producing a stream of poetic warmth and rising to true incandescence at such moments as the end of Part 1. Note, if this disturbs you, that Italian brass players were still using euphonium-like vibrato in 1974. Personally it didn’t worry me too much.

If the Edinburgh performance should ever turn up on disc, it will have a large choir of amateur voices, albeit carefully selected and excellently prepared. British ears seem to prefer this to a smaller group of professionally trained singers, but I’m not so sure if anybody else does. In Italy, "professionally trained" singers meant in 1974, and mostly still does, singers who have been through a Conservatorio where singing means singing Verdi. Giulini insists on real pianissimos, which sometimes results in hesitant attack. As with the orchestra, Giulini’s persuasive powers gradually succeed in wielding it all together, and there is blazing conviction at the climactic moments.

Giulini’s inspires his forces to give a seamless narration, arousing regret that he never wished to conduct Wagner. No one would doubt that this is a masterpiece in his hands.

The finest singer is probably Werner Hollweg, the narrator. His pliant tone is not large, but it is even and able to ride the full orchestra when required. British listeners will already have noticed the presence of Margaret Price. Since her contributions are almost invariably either preceded or followed by Hollweg, this does point up the fact that her vocal production seems based on singing everything with a very round "O", with the result that her tone appears to emerge from a tube. At times one gets the idea that an owl, or even A.A. Milne’s "Wol", is doing the singing rather than a human being. And the naturalness of Hollweg’s vowels are ever-present to show this up.

On the other hand, Margaret Price had one of the most lustrous voices around at that time, and the sheer quality of the sound can hardly be denied. "Schlaf’ nun und ruhe in Trämen voll duft" makes a truly exquisite ending to Part 2. By that time, furthermore, we’ve heard another soprano, Oliviera Miljakovic as the Jungfrau. A less distinctive voice, well-groomed but exactly like so many others we’ve heard. Her timbre acquires real quality – of a slightly soubrettish kind – only when she is able to develop it on a long note, thereby reminding us that Price’s vocal timbre is maintained on all her notes. So, whether or not the excess of "Os" irritates you as much as it does me, this is superior singing, Miljakovic’s merely acceptable.

Good singing, if a little on the small side, comes from Anne Howells; Marjorie Wright, unknown to me, makes a stronger impression. Wolfgang Brendel has little to do but does it very well. Robert Amis el Hage was a regular in RAI productions of those years, his sturdy musicality generally an asset, as here. Carlo Gaifa was another RAI regular. By the side of Hollweg he does sound rather like an Italian tenor who would rather be elsewhere, but it would be easy to imagine something far worse from that point of view. In the round, then, Giulini’s vision of the work is well served by all concerned.

I can’t advise on the alternatives, and the blazoned Jordan seems not to be available at the moment. If you want modern digital sound, the Gardiner has been highly praised. I can’t imagine a better conducted version than this, though.

Or can I?

Just out of curiosity I listened to the last 15 minutes – all I had preserved, more or less by accident – of a RAI performance given in Milan in 1992 under that erratic but fascinating figure, the late Vladimir Delman. In spite of Giulini’s reputation for slow tempi, the "last 15 minutes" actually corresponds to the last 9 minutes of the earlier performance. In the penultimate no. 25 Giulini opts for a warm flow and a feeling that we are gradually rising to the final climax. Delman seems to be groping his way forward in a kind of mystic trance, holding the attention by his continual probing into the orchestral textures. The soloists survive the time-stretching with honours – I don’t even know who they are, as I said, this survived a clear-out by pure accident – and the result is to bring a new dimension to the music, and I would say a greater one. This section takes 4:59 under Giulini, 8:19 under Delman.

Then the finale breaks in. Giulini takes a broad tempo which seems to grow out of what has come before. Delman, as much a man of extremes as Scherchen or Celibidache, simply takes off! It’s an exhilarating, life-enhancing display. The odd thing is that, in spite of a much faster tempo, Delman takes 6.38 compared with Giulini’s 3:57! Delman plays about double the amount of music as Giulini, and since he presumably didn’t compose it himself I take it Giulini in his wisdom did a bit of pruning. But without a score it’s difficult to know whether this is a "legitimate" cut, marked in the score and maybe allowed by Schumann himself. I can only say that, at Giulini’s tempi, the finale seems long enough, while it doesn’t outstay its welcome at Delman’s exuberant clip.

This cut raises the question as to whether Giulini did any cutting and trimming elsewhere. However, his timing is identical to Jordan’s and 6 minutes longer than Albrecht’s, so probably he did not.

Delman was a cult figure in Italy, now forgotten even there, perhaps for lack of recordings. He could yet become a cult figure since material for potential release in the RAI archives is not lacking, including a televised Tchaikovsky cycle. However, it is all compromised by the fact that the RAI orchestras, never the world’s best, might be described as a "chronicle of a death foretold" in the decade or so that he worked with them. The extract I’ve just heard starts with a very wobbly horn solo, for example, and no doubt there’s plenty more where that came from. He was also unpredictable himself and I believe he suffered psychological problems as the aftermath of his years in a Soviet lager. Still, while exercising due caution, Arts Archives might care to look into the Delman legacy.

As for Giulini’s RAI legacy, since his repertoire became increasingly circumscribed with the years, the odds are that there is little from the stereo era which was not repeated elsewhere. However, his 1970 "Don Giovanni" offers a rather different cast from his EMI recording and I suspect most opera lovers would be glad to hear it: Ghiaurov, Bruscantini, Janowitz, Jurinac, Kraus, Miljakovic, Monachesi and Petkov. Going further back into the mono era and his years as the first Principal Conductor of the newly-founded RAI orchestra of Milan, he conducted a wide range of material, including atonal stuff by long-forgotten Italians. His broadcast of an opera by Haydn caught the attention of Toscanini. There might be some surprises among all this, though I wouldn’t expect much of the recordings themselves. It might be worth investigating whether the two Mozart concertos with Michelangeli from the early 1950s have to sound as utterly dire as they do on their bootleg issues.

 

Christopher Howell

 

 


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