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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri) - oratorio for Soloists, Choir and Orchestra, Op. 50 (1843-44) [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 RAI di Rome/Gianni Lazzari
Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Rome/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 9 February 1974, Auditorium RAI, Rome, Italy.
ARTS ARCHIVES 43076-2 [58:50 + 37:05]

From my recent experience with several Peter Maag reissues I now look forward with eager anticipation to hearing archive releases from Arts Music. I feel fortunate to have received this remastered recording of Schumann’s large-scale, secular oratorio that was recorded live in Rome in 1974.

The largely unfamiliar score is rarely performed and I cannot recollect seeing it too many times in concert programmes. My main contact with the work was hearing several major excerpts some years ago at a music class on the ‘Life and Works of Robert Schumann’. However, I was rather surprised when a quick search in the catalogues revealed a substantial number of recordings of the score: John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv Produktion; Gerd Albrecht on Supraphon, Wolf-Dieter Hauschild on Berlin Classics; Giuseppe Sinopoli on DG, Joshard Daus on Arte Nova; Armin Jordan on Erato and Henryk Czyz on EMI Classics.

Schumann the arch-Romantic was greatly inspired by the writings of the key Romantic authors of his day such as Byron, Goethe, Burns, Rückert, Heine et al. The basis for the libretto of the Paradise and the Peri is a segment of Lalla Rookh, the acclaimed 1817 epic poem by Thomas Moore. Known as ‘An Oriental RomanceLalla Rookh consists of four narrative poems in rhymed couplets connected by spoken narrative in Emil Flechsig’s German translation. Flechsig’s text had been adapted by Schumann in collaboration with Adolf Böttger. Probably an unfamiliar name to many readers the Irish poet Thomas Moore was, in the early 1800s, spoken of in the same breath as Sir Walter Scott, John Keats and Lord Byron.

Schumann’s score to Paradise and the Peri is similar in romantic spirit to its later companion the similarly neglected oratorio Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, Op. 112 (1851). In this fertile period other scores in a similar context from Schumann’s pen followed closely, the choral ballads: Der Königssohn, Op. 116 (1851); Des Sängers Fluch, Op.139 (1852); Vom Pagen und der Königstochter, Op. 140 (1852); Das Glück von Edenhall, Op. 143 (1853); the Dramatic Poem, Manfred, Op. 115 (1852) and Scenes From Goethe's Faust (1844-53).

Schumann developed the text of the Paradise and the Peri into a series of three cantatas for soloists, choir and orchestra; dividing the part for narrator between the various voices. Schumann considered it his most substantial composition up to that time and also his best. In a letter to Eduard Krüger he declared, "an oratorio, but for cheerful people, not for a place of prayer." Inspired by the poem, Schumann found the concept, poetic and pure and was stirred by the Romantic themes of love, heroism and redemption after death. The score became highly popular in Germany receiving many performances and undoubtedly helped consolidate Schumann’s reputation as a major composer.

According to biographer Ronald Taylor Paradise and the Peri is a "symbolic tale of salvation through ceaseless striving." The story is as follows: As the offspring of a mixed birth the Peri is a fallen angel from a race perpetually banished from entering Paradise on pain of death. The Peri embarks on a mission of penitence to earn her passage to Paradise. To achieve this she has tasks to complete. First the Peri obtains a suitable gift for the angels which is a drop of blood from a dead hero in India but this is not enough. Secondly, in Egypt she brings back the last breath of a dying woman but this is still not enough. Thirdly in Syria the Peri procures the tears of a remorseful sinner and with this success she finally gains her place in Paradise.

For a time in the 1840s Schumann’s handling of the secular oratorio had seemed innovative. Influential writer Edward Dannreuther described the score as, "Novel in style, romantic and sentimental in spirit, it won the sympathy of the upper bourgeoisie, and pleased the members of the Singing Societies." It was not long before the general regard enjoyed by this type of work was eclipsed by pioneering composers, such as Berlioz and Wagner, who drove the genre up to another level with the advent of the heavyweight ‘music-drama’. The speed of this sea-change in public taste is demonstrated by the fact that in 1843, the year that the Paradise and the Peri received its first performance, Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was also staged with Tannhäuser premièred a few years later in 1845. Furthermore, as a continuation of this dramatic onslaught Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust had been premièred in 1846 and Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1850.

In Paradise and the Peri one notices the lack of weight and drama with a preponderance of sentimentality and sweetness. In the airs there is a profusion of syrupy melody and quite a few of the lighter choruses are a pleasure to hear, such as: the appealing ‘Chor der genien des Nils’ from the first section; the graceful closing piece of the second section ‘Schlaf nun und ruhe in Traumen voll Duft’ and, opening section three, the delightful ‘Cor der Houris a canon for female voices. I can report a fine standard of ensemble from the choir under their chorus master Gianni Lazzari.

Leading the international cast of soloists is Welsh soprano Margaret Price as the Peri. Price displays an expressive and durable voice with admirable phrasing and technique. I especially enjoyed her opening piece, ‘Wie glucklich sie wandeln’ and her third section solos, ‘Verstoßen’ and ‘Hinab zu jenem Sonnentempel!’ The voice of tenor Werner Hollweg is in superb condition with a particularly impressive projection and enunciation. Anne Howells, the contralto as The Angel displays a luxuriant timbre. Unfortunately I was less enamoured of the soprano Oliviera Miljakovic as The Maiden who seemed uncomfortable with the role and suffered from a rather shrill tone. It was a pleasure to hear the rich bass and outstanding delivery of Robert Amis el Hage and also the secure and smooth baritone of Wolfgang Brendel. The Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Roma under the eminent Carlo Maria Giulini provide sympathetic support although they are somewhat recessed in the balance.

The sound quality is acceptable for its thirty year age but generally feels lacking in depth. There is some slight background noise which is not difficult to tolerate on this live recording with great applause from the audience at the conclusion of the work. The annotation is often confusing and at first it proves difficult to work out who is actually singing and what piece. It really detracts from the desirability of the release that Arts can market this valuable archive recording of a work that relies so much a narrative, without providing English translations of the text for the listener to follow. The label has, however, provided a useful essay translated into English from the German.

This recording of a live performance is a valuable contribution to Schumann’s recorded legacy.

Michael Cookson

see also review by Christopher Howell




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