BBC Proms reviews

Prom 49 review – Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri enjoys its first complete performance at the BBC Proms  

22 August 2023

The London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle present an oratorio that was, in its day, both popular and unusual.

Prom 49

Prom 49 (Photo: Mark Allan)

Although not performed that frequently today, Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri proved highly popular when it premiered in 1843, with interest in the piece only dwindling half a century later. It is based on the Irish poet Thomas Moore’s verse epic Lalla Rookh of 1817, which itself proved very lucrative for the author. Recognising that he could not simply set Moore’s text to music, because it presented insufficient opportunities for dialogue and first person utterance, Schumann employed Adolf Böttger to develop it, but a reasonable amount of the poet’s original verse remains, albeit now appearing in German.

The plot centres on a Peri, a fallen angel who has been expelled from Heaven, but who, unlike Satan, has the chance to redeem herself and reenter Paradise. In order to do so, she must find that which is most dear to Heaven. When she takes a drop of blood from a hero who died trying to protect his people’s land in India, an Angel informs her that this is not enough. A second attempt sees her go to Egypt where she takes the final breath of a devoted woman who died kissing her lover who she knew was plague ridden. Again, this proves insufficient. Finally, she travels to Syria where she finds an old man confessing his life’s deeds to a child, and the tear she takes earns her readmission for there is nothing dearer to Heaven than the tear of a repentant sinner.

Although Schumann’s composition predates Der Ring des Nibelungen and most of Wagner’s other major operas, the fact that traces of his ideas are to be found in the work only reveals how Wagner, Schumann and indeed Moore (whose poem was based on Persian sources) were all referring to myths, ideas and concepts that had a long history. The Peri takes the final drop of blood from the hero before ‘its free-born spirit fled’, which feels reminiscent of a mortal ascending to Valhalla. The Egyptian woman’s plan to perish along with her husband seems similar to Isolde’s efforts to ensure that both she and Tristan die (although, in this instance, nothing transpires to rescue them). Even the old man confessing how he went astray to the child has undertones of Wotan seeing in Siegfried the hero who will not falter as he did.

“…Das Paradies und die Peri proved highly popular when it premiered in 1843…”

Prom 49

Lucy Crowe (Photo: Mark Allan)

The music, which writer and composer Stephen Johnson has described as “more like a beautifully sequenced, sometimes skilfully dovetailed orchestral song recital than any oratorio of Schumann’s day”, is notable for its melodic flow. Recitative and neo-Handelian contrapuntal writing in the choral music are both kept to a minimum, but while that might suggest that the orchestral arrangement is quite conservative, that was not the impression one was left with from hearing the London Symphony Orchestra. Its performance, which marked Simon Rattle’s penultimate Proms appearance before he becomes the orchestra’s conductor emeritus, made it easy to appreciate how the controlled parameters of the score may well be what makes the music so beautiful and elegant. Dramatically as well, there is also a great deal of variation as, for example, the Peri’s sense of triumph on believing that the hero’s blood will redeem her gives way to despair as the Angel proclaims it is not enough to allow her to reenter Paradise. In fact, the strength of the performance was such that the audience could not fail to wonder why it had taken 128 years for the piece to appear in its entirety at the Proms.

The London Symphony Chorus, under chorus master Lionel Sow, rose superbly to meet all of the demands made of it, and on numerous occasions sounded very good indeed. Florian Boesch’s bass-baritone was heard to excellent effect as he played the tyrant Gazna who murders the hero. Linard Vrielink displayed a highly pleasing and persuasive tenor as the plague ridden Young Man, while Jeanine De Bique revealed some extremely impassioned singing as the Young Girl who goes to her death with him.

The evening was also characterised by the quality of the soloists’ acting as much as by their singing. As the Angel, Magdalena Kožená’s mezzo-soprano was highly compelling, but it was notable how she remained in character throughout, with her face constantly revealing sympathy for what the Peri was going through. Andrew Staples’ delivery was highly engaging, as befitting his role as the Narrator, but it was Lucy Crowe who stood as the first among equals as she gave a suitably multifaceted performance as the Peri. Combining sensitivity with precision, she shaped her lines to perfection and, in the process, made us feel every step of the Peri’s long and arduous journey towards Paradise.

Prom 49 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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