Simon Rattle conducts Schumann’s “Paradise and the Peri”

08 Feb 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Sally Matthews, Kate Royal, Andrew Staples, Bernarda Fink, Topi Lehtipuu, Christian Gerhaher

  • Robert Schumann
    Paradise and the Peri, op. 50 (97 min.)

    Sally Matthews Soprano, Kate Royal Soprano, Andrew Staples Tenor, Bernarda Fink Contralto, Topi Lehtipuu Tenor, Christian Gerhaher Baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey talks about Schumann’s “Paradise and the Peri” (14 min.)

“He is the most honest of all composers,” Sir Simon Rattle once said about Robert Schumann. During Rattle’s tenure as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker Schumann has increasingly become a stronger focus of the orchestra’s work, and all the Schumann symphonies were programmed during the 2008/2009 season, with various conductors. The “secular oratorio” Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri) was also presented under Rattle’s baton – a work which Sir Simon has said he would take with him to the proverbial “desert island”. Schumann himself regarded Peri as one of his best compositions. After great successes during his lifetime, the work was almost completely forgotten later. One of its admirers was the great Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini, who drew Sir Simon’s attention to the beauty of the underrated score.

The work, which combines oratorical, operatic and songlike characteristics in an oriental atmosphere, seems to hover between the worlds, like its protagonist. The peri, whose story Schumann drew from Thomas Moore’s epic tale Lalla Rookh, has both earthly and celestial origins. During the story she tries to gain admittance to paradise, which should actually remain closed to her because of her background. The international ensemble of soloists was led by soprano Sally Matthews as the peri and baritone Christian Gerhaher, who has championed Robert Schumann’s lesser-known works for many years and shares Simon Rattle’s enthusiasm for Das Paradies und die Peri.

“A new genre for the concert hall”

Das Paradies und die Peri by Robert Schumann

Leipzig, 1843. Peace finally prevails at the home of Robert and Clara Schumann. Apart from threatening financial storm clouds, the period of tempestuous passion and anguish is past. The struggles of Germany’s most Romantic composer with his fiancée’s father had long since found an outlet in his works. The piano served Schumann as catalyst for existential desires, hopes and despair. Up to Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jest from Vienna), his Op.26 completed in 1840, he had written nothing but compositions for this instrument. After he finally was able to lead Clara to the altar in September of that year, his compositional course suddenly shifted. Following their wedding, he composed two symphonies, having previously committed nothing to paper but lieder: Heine’s Dichterliebe, the Rückert songs, Myrthen, the Kerner songs, and a Liederkreis on Eichendorff’s poems and another on Heine’s.

By 1843, that phase was largely over. Musical scholarship is not wrong to call it the year of change in Schumann’s stylistic outlook. Onework alone would bear that out: the secular oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri. Its premiere in 1843 under the composer’s direction was an unqualified success with the public and critics. Only in its later reception was the work increasingly marginalized, occasionally even performed as an opera. Basically, however, there is no question as to its genre: Das Paradies und die Peri is an oratorio through and through, both in form and in content. Perhaps more questionable, though in a positive sense, is the designation “secular”, because the story on which the work is based has unmistakably sacred aspects. The libretto, on the other hand, dispenses with this element and gives the story an exotic setting. It is based on one of the four poems in Thomas Moore’s epic poem Lalla Rookh,a cycle of four tales published in 1817, inspired by the fascination held by many artists of the day for all things oriental.

Schumann, who may have already known the story as a youth in Zwickau, originally thought of making it into an opera. After he read the translation by his friend Emil Flechsig and adapted it as a libretto, the subject’s unsuitability to music-theatrical treatment became clear to him. Composition was completed in mid-June, and the result was a masterpiece which, though hardly ever denying its stylistic proximity to the immediately preceding song cycles, nonetheless reveals a completely different orientation.

Das Paradies und die Peri, a sort of triptych with a lyrical centre and two more active framing sections, artfully combines numbers for soloists and chorus into an organic whole. It is clearly recognizable as an oratorio, exhibiting operatic features only in a few choral passages. Schumann shows his mastery in crafting transitions between the individual numbers. Unlike his earlier works, there are hardly any abrupt shifts. The music flows for 90 minutes with only the ends of sections to serve as caesuras, but Schumann has provided a connecting thread by composing into the score various musical symbols which recur and provide the work’s backbone. New in this oratorio is the purity of expression, moving between pastoral airiness and mellifluousness (for example the beginning of Part III) and a measured, almost spiritual quality, thus convincingly unifying the secular and sacred elements.

Schumann was correct when, shortly before completing the oratorio, he wrote that Das Paradies und die Peri represented “a new genre for the concert hall”. That is where the work belongs, especially as Schumann elsewhere declared that it was composed not for the “chapel” but “for cheerful folk”.


The Peri, daughter of the impure union of a mortal and a fallen angel, has been excluded from Paradise. An angel hears her great longing and promises that she will be forgiven if she can find the gift that is most precious to heaven. In her search, Peri crosses the Indies, whose rivers are red with blood, whose temples have been devastated and whose pagodas demolished by the tyrant Gazna. Only one youth is left to confront the conqueror’s army. Wounded and with just a single arrow left, he is defeated. The Peri takes the last drop of blood from the dying hero and approaches the heavenly gates filled with hope. But she is turned away. Bitterly disappointed, the Peri sets off for Egypt, where plague is raging. At a remote lake she finds a young woman who refuses to leave her stricken lover. With the dying girl’s last sigh of pure love the Peri approaches the gates of Eden a second time – and is again refused admittance. In desperation, she summons all her strength and renews her quest once more. A criminal approaches and dismounts to drink from a fountain. On seeing a boy praying, he is profoundly moved and, weeping, also kneels in prayer. With one of his tears of repentance, the Peri approaches the heavenly gates for the third time. But now the chorus of Blessed Spirits bids her “welcome, welcome among the godly! Without cease thou hast striven and strained; now thou hast the precious boon obtained! Welcome among us; we greet thee!”

Bernarda Fink was born in Buenos Aires as the daughter of Slovenian immigrants. She studied music at the Instituto Superior de Arte at the city’s Teatro Colón, where she also sang on a regular basis before moving to Europe in 1985. She has appeared in opera houses, concert halls and recital rooms all over the world in a repertory ranging from the early Baroque to the 20th century. Her festival appearances have taken her all over Europe as well as to Japan, Australia and the United States of America. She is regularly invited to work with leading symphony orchestras and early music ensembles: among the conductors with whom she has appeared are Herbert Blomstedt, Semyon Bychkov, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti, Sir Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Möst. Bernarda Fink made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-January 1995 in a concert performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo under René Jacobs in the Chamber Music Hall. Her most recent appearance was in Schubert’s Mass in E flat major D 950 under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in April 2004.

Christian Gerhaher studied not only singing but also philosophy and medicine. His lieder teachers include Helmut Deutsch, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. In the course of his career as a song recitalist and as a concert singer with orchestras that include the Vienna and Munich Philharmonics, the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra, Christian Gerhaher has appeared in many of the leading concert halls both at home and abroad. Although his work is concentrated in the main on song recitals and concerts, he has also taken part in a select number of opera productions including the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Among the conductors with whom he has worked to date are Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Riccardo Muti, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2003 as the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles and has returned on many occasions since then. At the end of March 2008 he and his accompanist Gerold Huber were invited by the Foundation to give a song recital in the Chamber Music Hall. Christian Gerhaher is honorary professor of lieder singing at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich.

Genia Kühmeier was born in Salzburg and studied at the Mozarteum and at Vienna’s University of Music, where her teachers included Marjana Lipovšek. She made her professional stage debut at La Scala, Milan, in 2002 as Diane in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide and the following year appeared for the first time at the Vienna State Opera as Inès in Donizetti’s La favorite, remaining a member of the Viennese company until 2006. Her wide-ranging repertory includes works by Mozart, Salieri, Beethoven, Bizet, Wagner and Strauss and has so far taken her to Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, London’s Royal Opera, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the Salzburg Festival and the Ruhr Triennale. As a lieder recitalist and concert soloist with leading orchestras and the most eminent conductors, Genia Kühmeier has performed all over the world, including appearances at many of the most prestigious international festivals. This is her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu was born in Australia but studied a variety of subjects at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. His present vocal teacher is Elisabeth Werres in Berlin. He made his stage debut as Albert Herring at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, a debut soon followed by appearances as Tamino at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and by productions of Cavalli’s La Didone and Handel’s Alcina in Lausanne and Montpellier, together with a spectacular role debut as Belmonte, again at the Finnish National Opera. At the invitation of René Jacobs, he took part in a touring production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo that was also seen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Among other conductors with whom Topi Lehtipuu has worked are Sir John Eliot Gardiner, William Christie and Emmanuelle Haïm. His repertory is by no means limited to Baroque and Classical works but also extends to 20th-century music by Schoenberg, Rautavaara and Arvo Pärt. He has appeared throughout much of Europe and also in Japan and the United States of America. He first sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of Stravinsky’s Renard under Sir Simon Rattle in mid-June 2005.

Kate Royal was born in London and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the National Opera Studio. She won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 2004 and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist Award in 2007. Audiences in London, Glyndebourne, Madrid, Paris and Aix-en-Provence have heard her in a repertory extending from Monteverdi and Mozart to Bizet, Britten and Adès. As a concert soloist she has appeared at the BBC Proms and the Baden-Baden and Edinburgh Festivals and with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Simon Rattle, Vasily Petrenko and Helmuth Rilling. She has also given song recitals in several European countries as well as North America. Kate Royal made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-December 2007, when she took part in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie.

Andrew Staples was a boy chorister with the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir in London before studying music at King’s College, Cambridge. A scholarship from the Britten-Pears Foundation enabled him to continue his training at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Britten International Opera School. His present teacher is Ryland Davies. Until now he has appeared above all in his native country in a repertory that includes operas and concert works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Britten and Taverner. Among the orchestras with which he has worked are the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Symphony Orchestra. Conductors under whose direction he has appeared include Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding. His continental appearances include the role of Aret in Haydn’s Philemon und Baucis, which he sang at the 2003 Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt under the direction of Trevor Pinnock. Andrew Staples is making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, is the oldest radio choir in Germany. Famous German conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber conducted concerts and radio broadcasts with the choir during the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, principal conductor Helmut Koch established its reputation as a Handel specialist on tours which took it through most countries of Europe. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) developed the tradition of performing premieres of contemporary music; Robin Gritton took over the leadership in 1994. Since 2001 Simon Halsey has infected the Rundfunkchor with his enthusiasm and vitality.

Made up of 64 full-time professional singers, the choir appears in approx. 50 concerts worldwide each season. An impeccable and meaningful declamation of the text in any language required is the basis and starting-point for the choir’s work. It has built particularly close relationships with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester under Ingo Metzmacher, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Its high standard, wide-ranging repertoire and versatility are borne out by long list of award-winning CD releases. The recording of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem under Sir Simon Rattle received the 2008 Grammy Award for the best choral recording. Under Halsey’s direction, the choir also initiated a number of new projects: specific youth programmes, traineeships for selected young professional singers and a sing-along concert once a year. With its series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music the Rundfunkchor Berlin explores a dialogue with other art forms in innovative and scenic projects.


EMIChristian Gerhaher appears by courtesy of Sony Classical.

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