Robert Schumann commented that his oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1843) was “not for the chapel, but rather for merry people.” Of course, the composer’s sense of cheerfulness was slightly askew, and spirituality was not far from his thoughts either. This secular oratorio is an adaptation of a narrative poem from Lalla-Rookh by Irish poet Thomas Moore, written in 1817 in the midst of orientalist fervour for books about the east. The story appealed to Schumann because of its redemptive allegorical meaning, in which the Persian mythological figure Peri, who has fallen from heaven, must purify herself through a series of tests before being accepted back into Paradise.

Mikko Franck © Abramowitz | Radio France
Mikko Franck
© Abramowitz | Radio France

The exoticism of the work’s text is problematic to say the least. Yet Paradies has experienced a minor revival of interest over the last few decades, both due to its ecstatic vocal and orchestral writing, as well as for its enchanting hybrid structure, a mix between a classical oratorio and a succession of arias that hint more at lieder than the opera house. Sir Simon Rattle has been a continuing champion, performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2009 as well as with his new orchestra, the London Symphony, in 2015. For his farewell season in Berlin, he had planned three performances of the work at the Philharmonie with a top-class line-up of soloists.

After Rattle cancelled a few weeks beforehand, Finnish conductor Mikko Franck stepped in at short notice. Franck brought a light touch to the orchestra, yet provided just enough air and propulsion to stop this unwieldy structure crashing down to earth. As opposed to Rattle’s recording with the LSO, with its impassioned, swelling romantic gestures, Franck and the Berliners were calm and measured. Indeed, where this performance really shone was in maintaining a breathtaking tension across the meditative second section, with daringly slow tempi, stunning piano sections, and heart-stopping moments of stillness.

Sally Matthews and Mark Padmore have now sung this work with Rattle many times, with Matthews in particular an excellent advocate for the work. In the main role of Peri, her round, shimmering tone glided over the sumptuous soprano part, floating effortlessly into Schumann’s ecstatic heights. In contrast, Padmore brought something of Bach’s Evangelist to the part of the narrator, extremely plaintive with a pronounced, almost guttural German. Although not as distinguished in the German Romantics as in Baroque repertoire, Padmore’s ability to stun audiences with moments of dramatic flair and supreme interpretive insight remained intact.

The two protagonists were joined by the vocal quartet of Christian Gerhaher, Andrew Staples, Gerhild Romberger and Anna Prohaska: luxury casting for the oratorio’s minor roles. Romberger’s alto was sumptuous and gorgeous (although perhaps slightly stretched in the mezzo-soprano arias), yet Gerhaher, normally sensational in Lieder interpretation, made an interpretive misstep in the baritone aria “Jetzt sank des Abends goldner Schein”, with a delicate and introverted tone not quite carrying over the weight of the ensemble.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin (impeccably drilled goes without saying for this world-class ensemble) were on top form, and the performance was at its most enthralling when orchestra, choir, vocal quartet and soloists united at the end in a thrilling tutti, with a radiant and blooming sound that seemed to reach to the heavens. Whilst certainly not a work for the chapel, Das Paradies und die Peri certainly offers a glimpse of the divine.