Schumann (Das) Paradies und die Peri
Initially envisaged as an opera, Schumann’s haunting 1843 oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri tells of how a Peri – according to Persian mythology, the “impure” child of a fallen angel and a human female – can enter Paradise only if she arrives at Heaven’s gates with a worthy offering. Her first two offerings (a hero’s blood and a vision of selfless love) fail the test whereas a third (abstinence inspired by a child at prayer) wins her Heavenly access.
Clara Schumann thought Das Paradies her husband’s finest work and Nikolaus Harnoncourt calls it a “splendid” score. So why the neglect? Partly negative political memory, maybe (Goebbels commissioned an arrangement that emphasised sacrificial death), and partly the work’s hybrid nature. But it contains music that is at once dramatic, lyrical, ethereal, deeply personal and shot through with sincere human feeling. Mendelssohn’s influence is discernible more or less throughout, especially in the choral writing which is very lightly dispatched on this superb 2005 performance from Munich’s “shoebox” Herkulessaal. The dramatic core is vividly exemplified by the chorus “Doch seine Ströme sind jetzt rot”, which reports rivers of human blood, whereas the transition to the tenor solo about the felled hero (premonitions of Verdi’s Requiem) is meltingly beautiful, Christoph Strehl on excellent form.
Bach is another obvious point of reference, particularly at the point where the mezzo (Bernarda Fink) sings of a plague-inflected youth facing death, “Verlassner Jüngling”, music that’s unmistakably reminiscent of Bach’s Passion music and where Harnoncourt leans meaningfully on every fourth note of the strings’ accompaniment. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv, A/99) keeps the line fairly even, and also suggests less of an “ache” in the passage “Fort streift von hier das Kind der Lüfte” where alternating wind and string chords suggest a numbing silence that hovers over heavenly meadows.
I prefer Gardiner’s principal tenor Christoph Prégardien to Harnoncourt’s heavier-voiced Strehl but the consistently intense and expressive Dorothea Röschmann wins out over the creamy but less dramatically engaging Barbara Bonney. Harnoncourt’s Bavarian RSO sound warm, though period awareness on the conductor’s part ensures sonorities that are light and pointedly attenuated. There’s a well sung Suisse Romande reading under Armin Jordan (Cascavelle, 4/90R) and a stirring 1987 Czech Philharmonic version under Gerd Albrecht (Supraphon, 11/09 – nla) with Karita Mattila as the Peri and Keith Lewis as the principal tenor – definitely my next choice after Harnoncourt.