‘Paradise’ Is Lost On London Symphony As Led By Rattle

Simon Rattle rehearses Das Paradies und die Peri w Bernarda Fink, LSO
Simon Rattle rehearses a passage in of Schumann’s ‘Das Paradies und die Peri’ with mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink.
(London Symphony Orchestra)

SCHUMANN: Das Paradies und die Peri. Sally Matthews, Kate Royal, Bernarda Fink, Mark Padmore, Andrew Staples, Florian Boesch. London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Simon Rattle. LSO Live LSO 0782 (2SACD/1BDA). Download at iTunes. Total Time: 88.03.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — It is remarkable that so many of Robert Schumann’s major compositions, including his choral works Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, the Mass, the Requiem, and Das Paradies und die Peri remain all but unknown. The composer labored long and hard over these complex pieces, and they obviously meant a good deal to him. He started writing Das Paradies und die Peri, recently recorded by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, in 1841 at the age of 31 and completed it three years later.

Schumann 'Das Paradies und die Peri' (LSO Live)The oratorio was inspired by an Oriental romance titled Lalla Rookh written in 1817 by the Irish author, singer, sometime stage actor and songwriter Thomas Moore, who is perhaps best remembered for his song “The Last Rose of Summer.” In Moore’s romance, Lalla Rookh — daughter of a Mughal emperor — is engaged to a young king but falls in love with a poet from her entourage who turns out to be the young king.  There are four tales, among them “Paradise and the Peri,” which Schumann set to music.

The Peri is a fallen angel taken from Persian mythology. She has been expelled from Paradise and is trying to regain admission by offering “the gift that is most dear to heaven.” She first offers the last drop of a hero’s blood from India. Not good enough. She then offers, from Egypt, the last sigh of a maiden who has chosen to die beside her plague-stricken lover. This also is inadequate. Finally, she regains Paradise with the tear of a repentant sinner from Syria.

Musically, Das Paradies und die Peri, with alternating solos and choruses and a sung narration by a tenor soloist, shows the strong influence of Mendelssohn’s oratorios Elijah and St. Paul. But the music is neither varied nor original enough to overcome the lack of drama in the text. At nearly 90  minutes, the work seems far too long for its content.  That said, it has passages of great beauty and tenderness, and the choruses at the end of Parts One and Three are quite thrilling.

The Schumann recording marks Rattle's debut on LSO Live. (London Symphony)
The Schumann recording marks Rattle’s debut on LSO Live. (London Symphony)

With soloists and a conductor totally engaged in the work and its style, a performance of Das Paradies und die Peri can be memorable. John Eliot Gardiner, with a cast led by soprano Barbara Bonney, set the bar in a splendid 1999 release (Archiv 457 660). Unfortunately, the new Rattle recording does not measure up to that performance.

The problems start with soprano Sally Matthews as the Peri. Matthews has a lovely voice, but when she sings forte in her upper register, a wide and unpleasant vibrato intrudes. She also fails to convey the youthful vulnerability essential to the part. By comparison, Bonney, on the Gardiner recording, has a more beautiful voice and projects a far more sympathetic personality. When the Peri expresses her unbounded joy in the final section, Bonney is superb. Part of the problem in the Rattle recording is that Matthews tries to give full value to all the notes in the melismatic passages, whereas Gardiner wisely shortens the notes to allow Bonney’s voice to float more easily over the chorus. Rattle also presses the music too hard — so hard that it becomes a scramble.

Then there’s tenor Mark Padmore. He sounds quite ill at ease in the role of the Narrator, especially in his lower register. Christoph Prégardien, on the Gardiner recording, not only copes more easily with the vocal requirements of the role, but also makes a much more impressive storyteller.

The London Symphony Chorus, prepared by Simon Halsey, offers good diction and plenty of energy but again it is the Monteverdi Choir on the Gardiner recording that provides a more graceful account of the music.

Of the two conductors, Gardiner is far more imaginative in shaping phrases and in bringing out orchestral colors. For example, the Turkish percussion used to accompany the chorus in Part One, No. 6 (a portrait of the warrior Garza) is more vivid on his recording.

Concert hall at London's Barbican. (www.barbican.org.uk)
The LSO performs in the concert hall at London’s Barbican. (www.barbican.org.uk)

Rattle’s recording was made at the Barbican, the London Symphony’s home hall, during a live performance in January 2015. It has often been noted that the hall suffers from dry acoustics, and this recording reinforces such observations. Rattle takes over as chief conductor of the LSO in 2017, and it is no wonder that he has already started lobbying for a new hall.

Released on the LSO’s own label, the recording is offered in two audio formats in one box. Set A includes two SACD (‘Super Audio CD’, a format introduced by Sony and Philips in 1999) hybrid discs playable on SACD players as well as on standard CD players. Set B is a Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc playable only on Blu-ray players.

LSO Live and the Chicago Symphony’s CSO Resound are among the few classical labels releasing new products in the SACD format; nearly everyone else in the business has reached the conclusion that SACD is a failure, as it requires the listener to invest in an expensive new CD player but delivers sound quality that may not be any better than what one hears on a standard CD.

I don’t own a SACD player, and I don’t know anyone who does. For an investment of $5,000, a very limited catalog and no improvement in audio quality, one might ask oneself, “Why bother?” Much to the chagrin of Sony and Philips, few people did!

Pure Audio Blu-ray Discs are a newer technology and have some advantages. The most obvious is that they can accommodate far more music than the average CD. Case in point: At 88 minutes, Das Paradies und die Peri is too long to fit on a standard CD, which tops out at 79-80 minutes. So in this new box we have Schumann’s oratorio on two CDs in the old format, but on one CD in the Pure Audio Blu-ray format. Checking out the audio specifications on the Blu-ray disc, this new process is far superior. Specifications, however, are not the last word. When it comes to assessing sound quality, the final arbiters must be the human ears. I must report that listening through a Samsung BD-C5500 Blu-ray player, I could detect only a marginal improvement over the standard CD version.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.