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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Das Paradies und die Peri, Op 50 [88:03]
Sally Matthews (soprano) - Peri; Mark Padmore (tenor) - narrator; Kate Royal (soprano); Bernarda Fink (alto); Andrew Staples (tenor); Florian Boesch (bass)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Barbican, London, January 2015
German text and English translation included
Two hybrid SACDs [51:26 + 36:37] plus one Pure Audio Blu-ray [88:03] in 2.0 LPCM stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA, together with downloadable high-res files (playable in all regions)
LSO LIVE LSO0782 SACD/BD-A [51:26 + 36:37]

My goodness, the LSO has moved quickly to show off on disc its relationship with its Music Director-designate. Sir Simon Rattle is not due to take up his post until September 2017 and I must admit I had thought that we would have to wait for any recordings until after that date. However, here is a recording of a concert given in London last January as part of the extensive celebrations of the conductor’s sixtieth birthday during which he conducted both the Berliner Philharmoniker and the LSO in a number of concerts. When all the speculation was going on as to where Rattle would head post-Berlin it struck me that the opportunities offered by the LSO Live label could be a powerful weapon in the LSO’s negotiating armoury. This Schumann recording lays down a marker for what is likely to be an extensive discography.

Back in 2014 I reviewed Rattle’s fine set of the Schumann symphonies and I noted his comment that when he was starting to explore Schumann’s music Carlo Maria Giulini advised him to investigate Das Paradies und die Peri. When I heard this LSO performance live on BBC Radio 3 last year and then received the discs for review I wasn’t aware that Rattle had performed it in London as long ago as December 2007 (review). Then he performed it with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and four of the same soloists as here – only Andrew Staples and Florian Boesch were not common to both performances. So Sir Simon came to this LSO concert extremely well versed in Schumann’s music in general and in this particular score.

As Stephen Johnson points out in his brief but very useful notes, Schumann was very taken with Thomas Moore’s epic poem, Lalla Rookh (1817) when he was given a copy by a friend. But it was not until 1843 that he had the time available to commit to making a musical setting. He turned to his friend, the poet Adolph Böttger to condense Moore’s poem. Reviewing this concert for Seen and Heard International, Mark Berry had some acid things to say about the libretto and I cannot but agree with him. The music, however, is a very different matter – and in two ways. Firstly, Schumann’s orchestration is a consistent delight; had this score not lapsed into a neglect from which conductors such as Gardiner, Giulini, Harnoncourt and Rattle himself have recently rescued it then the old canard about the alleged thickness of Schumann’s orchestral textures might have been more swiftly laid to rest. Secondly, the level of musical inspiration and melodic invention is high. I only read Stephen Johnson’s notes after I had listened for the first time but I thought he was spot on in this verdict on the score. He says it is “more like a beautifully sequenced, sometimes skilfully dovetailed orchestral song recital than any oratorio of Schumann’s day.”

I’m glad to report that the performance is, in most respects, a fine one. I should get out of the way the main reservation I have: the contributions of the two soprano soloists. Sally Matthews is in many ways excellent as the Peri. Her tone is often lustrous and, when required to do so, her voice can ride over the top of the ensemble with ease – as, for instance, in the closing number of Part I. I also admired the expressiveness of much of her singing and the joyfulness she conveys in the last number, when the Peri is finally readmitted to Paradise, is palpable. The snag – and for me it’s a big one – is that her words are often unclear and sometimes simply unintelligible, even though I was following the German text closely. Perhaps the trouble is that the words are clouded by vibrato. In the work’s closing number, for instance, I found that whenever I switched my eyes to read what the chorus was singing it was very difficult indeed to pick up again the soloist’s text. That’s a great pity. It’s not an issue that afflicts Barbara Bonney, who sings the role on the 1997 DG Archiv recording conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Kate Royal’s singing is similarly compromised by poor diction and that’s particularly a problem in her solo as the Maiden towards the end of Part II.

The third female soloist, Bernarda Fink, offers fine singing and much clearer diction. She’s well versed in this music: not only did she sing for Rattle in the 2007 concert but also she sings on Gardiner’s recording. I admired her contribution to the Gardiner set and she impresses here too. Throughout the performance she offers rich tone, commitment and intelligent expressiveness. My only slight reservation is that, to my ears, there’s a suspicion that a few top notes are spread, for example in No, 15.

Rattle has a strong team of male soloists. Andrew Staples has the least to do but what he does is done extremely well. I particularly relished the gentle pathos in his tone during his solo as the Young Man in Part II (No 14). Florian Boesch represents luxury casting and his marvellous, nuanced delivery of the bass solo in Part III, ‘Jetzt sank der Abends goldner Schein’, is a highlight of the entire performance. Mark Padmore is very persuasive as the Narrator. His very first narration in Part I (No 3) establishes that he will be an engaging, clear-toned guide to the story. As he warms to his task he becomes even more involving – not an easy task with this text. So by the time we reach No. 12 Padmore is even more expressive and imaginative – as is the accompaniment which Schumann provides for that solo. A little while later he relates the death of the Maiden compellingly (No. 16).

The choral singing is excellent. The London Symphony Chorus, always a splendid ensemble, is now in the hands of Simon Halsey, Rattle’s chorus director of choice for many years. He has clearly prepared them to his usual very high standard for this assignment. The choir sings robustly when required – the men make a forthright showing in No. 6. However, it’s the finesse and delicacy with which much of the choral music is delivered that I particularly relished. A fine example of this trait is offered in No 11, the Chorus of the Nile Spirits. And at the very end of the work the chorus bring proceedings to a suitably joyful conclusion.

The LSO is on equally fine form. The high quality of their playing is evident right from the start in the brief orchestral introduction to Part I. Another passage that caught my ear – one of many – was the marvellously eloquent accompaniment that they provide to the Peri’s penultimate solo, ‘Es fällt ein Tropfen aufs Land’ (no. 25). On this occasion Rattle will have had relatively limited rehearsal time with them. Once he’s able to work with them over time and on a much more regular basis I would expect the results to be even more exciting than is here the case. Rattle and his players really do show how fine and imaginative is Schumann’s orchestration in this score.

In his earlier review of this set Simon Thompson referred to three other recordings. Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to hear two of them: the Giulini (review) and the more recent one by Harnoncourt (RCO Live). The one which I have heard is the Gardiner recording – which is the only one of these four which was not taken from live performances. I think Simon was right in suggesting that Gardiner brings “the thrill of discovery”, as he so often does. For me, Gardiner complements Rattle and I most certainly won’t be discarding his recording. The Monteverdi Choir brings its customary incisiveness to bear and also one can relish the period instrument timbres of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Forced to sum up the recordings in a single phrase I think I’d suggest that Gardiner’s performance is the more vivid and incisive of the two, Rattle’s the warmer. I am definitely not saying that one is “better” than the other; each conductor and set of performers bring their own insights to the score. I’m glad to have both.

One thing that may sway the choice for collectors is that Gardiner’s recording is on CD, offering very good studio sound from 1997. The Rattle performance is offered, luxuriously, on a pair of SACDs and on a BD-A disc. I did most of my listening in BD-A format, using the 2.0 LPCM stereo option. I sampled the SACDs, using the same Marantz player, and thought that the sound was very good. However, the BD-A disc gives even more depth and vividness.

Stephen Johnson tells us that Das Paradies und die Peri was initially a great success, including in England. Those days are long gone and the work is unlikely ever to be a repertoire piece. However, it contains a great deal of high quality music and a recording such as this enables us to savour Schumann’s mastery to the full. This is an auspicious launch on disc of the LSO/Simon Rattle partnership.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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