Schumann Paradies und die Peri
''My biggest work and I hope my best'' was how Schumann assessed his Paradise and the Peri shortly after its Leipzig premiere in December, 1843. It certainly did more than anything he'd yet produced to convince the establishment that he was no mere miniaturist. Such was the warmth of its reception that even Friedrich Wieck at last accepted him as a respectable son-in-law. Nowadays, however, we more often than not have to wait for a festival, or some similar special occasion, to bring the work to the concert platform. The only LP recording known to me (made by EMI Electrola in Dusseldorf in 1974) never made its way into the English catalogue. So praise to Erato for at last giving us a performance on CD.
As a fallen angel, banished from Paradise until finding ''the gift most dear to heaven'', the Peri fails first when returning with the blood of a hero slain in liberty's cause and then with the last sigh of a maiden choosing death beside her plague-stricken lover. Only when bringing the tear of a villain moved to repentance by the sight of a child at prayer do the gates reopen to let her in. Yes, in this day and age, the tale (taken from Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh) might be thought sentimental. But it was the blend of the exotically pictorial with the moral that I think Schumann (still a youthful romanticist at heart) found irresistible. Indian freedom-fighters, Egyptian genii of the Nile and Syrian houris plainly fired his imagination no less than the Garden of Eden. Not for nothing did he once refer to the work as an oratorio for happy people, not for the church.
I enjoyed Armin Jordan's performance for its appreciation of this fact. It flows lightly and effortlessly from first note to last, not lacking strength when required (as in the battles and the final fugal peroration of Part 1), or tenderness (as in the exquisite ''Schlaf' nun und ruhe'' at the close of Part 2) or a quality of holiness (as in ''O heil'ge Tranen'' for the choir and solo quartet towards the end of Part 3), yet at the same time keeping sentiment of all kinds within the bounds of oriental fairy-tale. Schumann would most certainly have welcomed the seamless continuity of the performance. Criticized as he was by a few old die-hards for abolishing conventional set-numbers, he himself always regarded his new through-composed style as ''an advantage showing genuine and palpable improvement''. I much liked the pure, effortlessly soaring Edith Wiens as the Peri. As the male (tenor) narrator Robert Gambill avoids too operatic a savouring of his words even if not quite as open-throated as Nicolai Gedda in the German recording. The fruity mezzo-soprano tone and wide vibrato of his female counterpart, Anne Gjevang, at first struck me as misplaced, but not for long; either she herself quickly 'tunes in', or else my own ears did. The baritone, Hans-Peter Scheidegger, is an infinite improvement on his lugubrious German counterpart in ''Jetzt sank des Abends goldner Schein'' in Part 3. I was at once won over by the essential lyricism of the choral singing, and the orchestra plays with a similar easy flow.
The German quadraphonic recording brought greater three-dimensional clarity (not least in orchestral detail) as also greater resonance and sense of space. But I found the more contained Erato sound wholly mellifluous. Good marks to the booklet for foregoing biographical propaganda in favour of the complete text in French and English as well as German.'