Robert Schumann: Das Paradies und Die Peri

COMPACT DISK REVIEW ( oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra ).

Soloists E. Wiens, S. Herman, A. Gjevang, R. Gambill, H.P. Scheidegger, C. Pregardien. Choeur de Chambre Romand, Choeur Pro Arte Lausanne, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Armin Jordan. Erato Compact Disc 2292-45456-2.

This composition belongs to that handful of choral works that, by virtue of great music wedded to a powerful moral idea in the text, can never fail to bring the listener to tears. Yet alone among these masterworks, The Paradise and the Peri is virtually unknown to the listening public. The Erato label is to be congratulated for releasing what is not only the first recording to be made available on CD, but also the only new recording on any medium to be released in many years.

Perhaps it is because of the continuing effort by the musical "establishment" to portray Schumann as a superficial romantic composer, that this composition has languished in obscurity. Schumann himself regarded it as his "most important work in every sense of the word."

The text comes from the poem "Lalla Rookh" by Thomas Moore; it is based on Persian folklore, where the Peris are a race of demigoddesses descended from the fallen angels, forbidden to enter paradise until they have atoned for their sin. In this text, there is one Peri who expresses an especially fervent desire to enter paradise, and she is told by an angel that she may enter if she can bring "the gift heaven prefers above all others."

She makes two unsuccessful attempts: first she brings the last drop of blood of a hero, fallen in unsuccessful attempt to liberate India from a conquering tyrant. Then she brings the last breath of a young woman in Egypt whose lover is dying of plague, and she elects to die with him rather than abandon him. Each of these episodes satisfies the conditions for what Schiller calls the sublime: they demonstrate man's freedom to defy his natural instinct for self-preservation, in the service of a higher principle; to sacrifice oneself for the love of one's nation, of an idea, of another person. Schumann does his utmost to awaken this feeling of the sublime, and the listener is greatly moved -- and then, greatly disappointed, as is the Peri. Both of these gifts are rejected; paradise requires a much holier gift.

Finally the Peri spies, in Syria, a hardened, habitual sinner, drawing near to an innocent child. The listener fears the worst; but then, the child falls to his knees for his evening prayer, and the sinner, reflecting at last upon his lost innocence, is moved to tears of true remorse. The Peri, in a fascinating aria that utitilizes the same series of intervals that provide the motific material for Beethoven's late quartets, begins to realize that this tear of remorse is the gift Heaven values most. This gift gains the Peri her admittance into paradise, amid great rejoicing.

These themes of heroism, love and redemption inspired Schumann to the greatest exercise of his powers, sustained throughout the entirety of this relatively lengthy oratorio. Particularly striking is Schumann's mastery of contrapuntal and fugal writing, not always evident in some of his better-known works. Due to the clarity of Armin Jordan's reading of the score, and the digital recording, this mastery is fully accessible to the listener. The vocal soloists put in a sturdy performance, with that of Ann Gjevang as the Angel and alto soloist showing particular merit.

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