Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Rattle - Royal Festival Hall, 7 December 2007
Speaking about this rarely heard Schumann oratorio earlier in the week, Simon Rattle warned that "to our very puritanical, middle-European ears, people think this is simply too beautiful, the dissonances are too extraordinary. People have a problem with ecstatic music".
And Schumann biographer Robert Haven Schauffler wrote in 1945 that it was “too consistently sweet. After an evening of it you feel as if you had taken a bath in liquid honey.”
Having steeled my puritan ears for the promised ecstasy, I was surprised at the graceful restraint of the scoring. More like being sprinkled with sugar than dunked in syrup.
And although it avoids the solemnity we associate with the oratorio form, it's not all froth either. Episodically ravishing, beautiful even, it is however fleshed out with too many orchestrate-by-numbers passages to deserve labelling as a masterpiece. The near-impenetrable libretto, a word thicket of typically Victorian density, doesn't help its case.
The simple story of the Peri (a Persian fairy) who must devise a gift in order to enter the gates of heaven was narrated by Mark Padmore with interventions from the Peri (Sally Matthews) and other characters, portrayed by Bernarda Fink, Kate Royal, Timothy Robinson and David Wilson Johnson.
The female soloists were thoughtfully co-ordinated in taffeta gowns (left) so it was a pity that only Sally Matthews and Mark Padmore sang from the front of the stage, the other soloists being tucked back with the choir.
I'd never thought of Schumann as a choral writer until now, but the Choir of the Enlightenment had some of the best music, and they made the most of it in a series of luminously coloured passages. The ethereal Nile Spirits chorus, beautifully executed, was exquisite in its detail, and the soaring Blessed Spirits chorus was a suitably ecstatic finale.
The lustrous, knife-sharp soprano of Sally Matthews brought an other-worldly radiance to the part of the Peri. It contrasted with Mark Padmore's grave demeanour, which sometimes seemed at odds with the music. He didn't seem to be on his best form tonight, losing some of the lower notes, and a bit shouty overall.
I've heard Bernarda Fink sing better too, but her second half was better than her rather wobbly first. David Wilson Johnson's rich baritone was a highlight, but unfortunately he didn't have a great deal to do.
Neither did Kate Royal, here on absolutely stunning form, but with only one aria to lend her shimmering silvery soprano to.
Timothy Robinson made a varied impression, never quite as focused and convincing as in his recent hugely impressive Turn of the Screw stint at ENO.
Simon Rattle drove things along with a characteristic enthusiasm, drawing a vigorous and committed performance from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Their raw-textured sound went some to countering any charges of excessive prettiness in the music, but ultimately the writing gripped only sporadically. When it did - there is some strange and wonderful harmonic exposition tucked away in there - it convinced that at least part of the work is worth further exploration.
It wasn't quite enough to persuade that Das Paradies und die Peri is a neglected masterpiece - and it certainly needs a top drawer cast like tonight's to give it any chance at all - but Simon Rattle deserves credit for organising this airing.