Simon Rattle conducts Schumann's Paradise and the Peri

Sally Matthews, Mark Padmore and the LSO make a case for Schumann's lesser known work

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Simon Rattle conducts Schumann's Paradise and the Peri
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I’ve often wondered what a peri looks like: half-angel, half-dryad, winged, perhaps, but feathered or scaly, ghostly or fully-formed? Now I know it looks like Sally Matthews, resplendent in gauzy green, with a gleaming, dew-fresh soprano soaring to ecstatic heights, a being of tenderness, compassion and wonder.

Matthews led an ideal cast in Schumann’s rarely-heard 1843 oratorio, Paradise and the Peri, performed by a chamber-sized London Symphony Orchestra and chorus and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle's belief in this idiosyncratic score came through in a performance of brilliantly-paced drama and mercurial subtlety.

Paradise and the Peri was a major hit across Europe after its first performances. Wagner admired it, Berlioz plundered it for his L’enfance du Christ and choirs were apparently set up in Britain expressly to perform it. Schumann had judged the taste of the time to perfection: Thomas Moore’s 1817 re-telling of a Persian myth in which the Peri is barred from Paradise unless she brings ‘the gift that is most dear to Heaven’ had a certain pious sentimentality which appealed to Victorian sensibilities. After two false attempts, the Peri finds the tear of a sinner, moved to repentence by the prayers of a young boy.

One can see why its saccherine text soon turned sour, yet the ardour in Schumann’s melodious invention is authentic, the naïve radiance of its choruses undeniably sincere (and for all its fanciful Orientalism, Islam is strikingly presented as a moral and spiritual equivalent to Christianity).

From the very opening bars with their spare, falling string figures, one can hear how fine an orchestrator Schumann really was; throughout the melodic impetus often comes from the bass and middle parts of the texture, with violins in the accompanying role. Long-breathed winds are suspended in streaming string scales, flutes glitter along with the female chorus, brass is delicate and the bass soloist (a glowing Florian Boesch) was able to reduce his voice to a gentle murmur alongside horn and bassoon.

Our great evangelist Mark Padmore is a true singer-poet, in the bardic tradition: whatever story he’s telling us, we want to hear it, and the bizarre fate of the Peri was no exception. Only during her second attempt at finding the ‘right kind of tear’ was the drama becalmed, but revived in a fragile-sounding Kate Royal’s maidenly lament. Four young singers from the Guildhall School of Music made a strong showing as Peri’s ‘sisters’.

In Rattle’s hands, the work leapt forward, lithe and wary. After a rapt opening of lieder-like intimacy, featuring Bernarda Fink as the dignified angel at the gates of Paradise, the male chorus exploded with shocking force, evoking war and ‘rivers of blood’. Even their English consonants couldn’t dampen the seething energy chorus master Simon Halsey had inspired from them. Tenor Andrew Stapleton joined Royal, Fink and Boesch for the set pieces with chorus: Rattle has described them as ‘Handel on some psychedelic drug’, which just about nails it, but the underlying presence is Bach. At the moment Sally Matthews finally enters Heaven, Schumann turns to his musical God and evokes the Art of Fugue like a magical charm.

We have more of Rattle to look forward to this spring, though the tantalising rumour he is taking up a post at the LSO remains unconfirmed. From this performance, love is in the air.

 

This concert is available on BBC Radio 3 Listen Again. Celebrating Simon Rattle continues on BBC Radio 3 next week with a complete Beethoven cycle with the CBSO from Frankfurt from 1995, never previously broadcast.

Simon Rattle and the LSO perform Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at Barbican Hall on Thursday 15 January.

 

 

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