Mikko Franck conducts Schumann’s “Paradise and the Peri”

Mikko Franck conducts Schumann’s “Paradise and the Peri”
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19 May 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Mikko Franck

Sally Matthews, Mark Padmore, Anna Prohaska, Gerhild Romberger, Andrew Staples, Christian Gerhaher

  • Robert Schumann
    Paradise and the Peri, op. 50

    Sally Matthews soprano (Peri), Mark Padmore tenor (Narrator), Anna Prohaska soprano (The Maiden), Gerhild Romberger contralto (The Angel), Andrew Staples tenor (The Young Man), Christian Gerhaher baritone (Gazna), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master

It was one of the great choral works of the 19th century: with Paradise and the Peri, Robert Schumann succeeded in creating what he himself described as “a new genre for the concert hall”. Not an opera, not an oratorio, but oriented towards both genres, the piece has everything that makes up a grandiose, Romantic vocal work: effective choral scenes, intimate, lyrical, lieder-like solo numbers, and an instrumental ensemble that shows Schumann at the height of his orchestration skills. The listener is guided through all the emotions of human existence: grief, despair, hope, love, remorse, joy ...

The action, which takes place in exotic locations in India, Syria and Africa, is based on the epic Lalla Rookh by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. Schumann knew the poem from his youth and recorded it in his “project book” as a possible source material for an opera, but it was not until a friend pointed out the suitability of the subject and offered him his translation that Schumann decided to set the music. The Peri is a social outcast: the child of a fallen angel and a mortal woman, who is denied a place in Paradise. Only after a series of tests is the Peri purified and accepted in the ranks of the blessed.

Schumann himself considered the piece, which brought him a triumphant success at its premiere in 1843 and marked him out as the leading composer of his day, one of his most effective creations. However, after enjoying great success during his lifetime, the work was later almost completely forgotten. His admirers included the Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who performed the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976. The orchestra presented the work again in 2009 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, a great admirer of Schumann. Under the baton of Mikko Franck, who is standing in for Simon Rattle, the Berliner Philharmoniker will be joined by the Rundfunkchor Berlin and a star-studded ensemble of soloists including Mark Padmore, current Artist in Residence and Christian Gerhaher, Artist in Residence of the 2013/2014 season.

“A new genre for the concert hall”

Paradiseand the 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 Paradise and the 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: Paradise and the 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.

Paradise and the 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 Paradise and the 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 Finnish conductor Mikko Franck was born in Helsinki in 1979 and started playing the violin at the age of five. He studied violin at the Sibelius Academy from 1992, and from 1995, he received conducting lessons from Jorma Panula; further studies took him to New York, Israel and Sweden. Since then he has performed with many renowned orchestras – including the Munich Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin – and at leading opera houses. From 2001 to 2007, he was chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Belgique, and from 2006 to 2013, general music director and (since 2007) artistic director of Finnish National Opera. In addition to his activities there, Franck also conducted performances at Zurich Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He has been a guest on several occasions at the Wiener Staatsoper where the operas he conducted included La Bohème, Salome, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Elektra, Tosca and Die tote Stadt. In September 2015, Mikko Franck took over the musical direction of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with whom he also toured Europe and Asia last season. Since the beginning of this season, he has also been principal guest conductor of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Mikko Franck conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2003 with a programme of works by Ravel and Shostakovich; he last appeared on the rostrum of the orchestra in January 2018 in two concerts including Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. In February 2018 Mikko Franck was nominated Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF France.

Sally Matthews was the winner of the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1999. She studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and from 2001 to 2003, she was a member of the Vilar Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, during which time she made her debut in the house as Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff (conductor: Bernard Haitink) in 2001. Roles at Covent Garden since then have included Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Sifare (Mitridate), Anne Truelove (The Rake’s Progress) and Blanche in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites. Further engagements have taken her to the leading opera houses in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels and Vienna among others. Sally Matthews’ broad repertoire ranges from early music to works by Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Dvořák, Mahler, Stravinsky and Messiaen, to works by contemporary composers. She made her Salzburg Festival debut in 2016 singing Silvia in the world premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, a role repeated in her debut at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. The soprano is also active as a concert singer and has given recitals regularly with pianist Simon Lepper at La Monnaie, Brussels, the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam and Wigmore Hall, London. After her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in Orff’s Carmina Burana at the end of 2004, Sally Matthews last performed with the orchestra in November 2014 in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Gerhild Romberger was born and raised in Emsland in Germany, and initially studied to be a school music teacher at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold before graduating in singing under Heiner Eckels. She additionally attended courses in lieder interpretation with Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Höll. Since 2003 she has been a professor of singing at the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold. The mezzo-soprano has always concentrated on concert singing: the main focus of her activities are lieder recitals and her involvement in contemporary music. The singer’s repertoire includes all the major alto and mezzo-soprano roles in oratorio and concert music, from the Baroque to 20th century works. Important engagements in recent years included working together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Herbert Blomstedt, with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly and concerts with Manfred Honeck. Furthermore she performed with the Vienna and Bamberg Symphony Orchestras (under Daniel Harding), at La Scala (under Franz Welser-Möst) and with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. She sang at the opening festival of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in Mahler’s Second with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, and in Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s First Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (conductor: Ingo Metzmacher). Gerhild Romberger made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2012 in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis under Herbert Blomstedt; she last appeared in concerts of the orchestra in mid-June 2014, when Gustavo Dudamel conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Mark Padmore first trained as a clarinetist before starting his vocal studies at King’s College in Cambridge in 1979. His close association with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants began in 1991, and with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent in 1992. Mark Padmore soon gained global fame particularly for his roles as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist in Bach’s choral works. But from the 1990s, he also increasingly made a name for himself on the opera stage: he sang in Peter Brook’s production of Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence, made a guest appearance in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and was involved in performances of Handel’s Jephtha at English National Opera. He also took on the main roles in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden. Mark Padmore has performed with the Vienna and New York Philharmonic, the London and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam; he also regularly performs with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Britten Sinfonia. As a lieder singer, he works together with pianists such as Paul Lewis, Till Fellner, Julius Drake and Roger Vignoles. In the 2016/2017 season, Mark Padmore played a significant role in the programme of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Munich as its artist in residence. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom the singer now holds the same position this season, he most recently appeared in works by Schumann, Wigglesworth and Janáček in the Chamber Music Hall in early April. Mark Padmore is artistic director of the St Endellion Summer Music Festival in Cornwall.

During his studies under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach, German baritone Christian Gerhaher attended the Opera School of the Academy of Music in Munich and, together with his regular piano partner Gerold Huber, studied lied interpretation with Friedemann Berger. While completing his medical studies Christian Gerhaher perfected his vocal training in masterclasses given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Inge Borkh. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Pelléas (Pelléas et Mélisande), Posa (Don Carlo), Olivier (Capriccio) and Wozzeck. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Kirill Petrenko and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared many times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003. As artist in residence in the 2013/14 season, the baritone also gave several chamber concerts. He was last heard with the orchestra in October 2016 in concerts with Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (conductor: Bernard Haitink). Christian Gerhaher, who holds the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, is an honorary professor at the Academy of Music in Munich and gives international masterclasses. For his outstanding contribution to bringing classical music to wider audiences, he was awarded the Music Award at the 2016 Heidelberger Frühling. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006 and 2015 as well as the German Record Critics’ Annual Award in 2010.

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