Sir Simon Rattle’s busy Berlin schedule came to a partial halt this month when it was announced that the British conductor would not be able to lead the Staatskapelle Berlin in any of the performances of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden due to a minor operation. Stepping in for him was Marc Minkowski: an interesting shift of perspective, given that Rattle is best known for his renditions of 19th- and 20th-century music, while Minkowski’s repertoire of choice usually tends to the Baroque period. If recordings of Rattle’s interpretation of the oratorio are easily available, the same can’t be said about Minkowski. All the more reason, then, not to miss the concert.

Mark Minkowski
© Georges Gobet

Schumann’s introspective, often hermetic idiom might seem to collide with the extroverted quality that is usually associated with an ensemble of considerable proportions. Some would argue that the composer’s fortune lies elsewhere in his production. However, this is only partially true. Schumann’s orchestral works often prove to be captivating, and Das Paradies und die Peri is no exception. Based on a mythical tale of Persian inspiration but Western provenance, the oratorio may scare readers away – or help them doze off – because of its ornate prose. But the score, uninvolved in the Orientalism of the text, isn’t short of beauty and depth which can fascinate its listeners.

Minkowski’s conducting steered clear of excesses and maintained a perfect balance during the evening. His rendition was transparent but not flimsy. The orchestra sounded solid yet agile, capable of taking on the main role in the narration but also of fading into the background to accompany the voices. Minkowski’s unfailing ear for lyricism was undoubtedly the highlight of the performance: under his guidance, Schumann’s melodies flowed effortlessly through the variety of tempos and dynamics. The performance would have perhaps benefited from a less cautious, more personal approach that could have increased its emotional impact – but with such little time to step in, the conductor still managed to pay good service to the score.

If the oratorio’s exotic, highly decorative prose was in fashion at the composer’s time, it may leave modern audiences and performers quite cold. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, that the soloists succeeded in imbuing it with vitality. The libretto’s contemplative pace allowed the singers to refine each passage. This is arguably the best approach to the piece: a continuous attention to every musical phrase, which is as necessary to Schumann’s oratorio as it is to his Lieder. All seven soloists proved up to the task, but it was mostly soprano Lucy Crowe, who sang the title role of Peri, and tenor Andrew Staples that excelled in bringing the text to life. The two singers tested the quality of the words, highlighting their texture as pure sound all the while giving them dramatic meaning. Their performances were accurate but never overdone.

Completing the ensemble was the Staatsopernchor. The choir, instructed by Martin Wright, displayed great versatility and precision. An impeccable control of dynamics allowed them to deliver some impressive piano and pianissimo, together with moments of greater musical volume. Under the guidance of Minkowski all musicians moved as one living organism, concurring to recreate the Peri’s endeavours to re-enter Paradise. Such cohesion was greeted warmly by the audience, who awarded both the musicians and their conductor with an enthusiastic success.