It’s a little over seven years since Simon Rattle last conducted Schumann’s secular oratorio – the composer’s own description – in London, at the RFH, with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in December 2007, with the four of the same six principal soloists as were again pressed into service tonight, including Sally Matthews as the titular heroine and Mark Padmore as the Narrator. It came as quite the revelation then, and remains so even now, given the relative rarity with which the work is performed (though Rattle has proved a tireless champion, mounting the work subsequently with his Berliners, and enthusing his closest associates – like Daniel Harding – to take the work up themselves). That the piece might slowly be edging its way back into the repertory shouldn’t surprise, since it is exceptionally strong musically, featuring much top-drawer Schumann and with very little dutiful infill except perhaps for the seemingly obligatory choral fugue that ends Part One (of three). Elsewhere, the sense of complete melodic mastery and compositional savvy makes itself apparent, and indeed the whole of Part Three – here given after an unnecessary and musically disruptive interval – manifests the same kind of long-range structural planning that underpins most mature Wagner, with a very slow start steadily transitioning into a blazing sprint for the finishing line, something Rattle both understands and conducts perfectly.
The work was first performed in 1843 – the same year as Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and the year after Verdi’s Nabucco – and is taken from the four-part narrative poem Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore, a dilettante Irish actor/entertainer and sometime civil servant who also wrote The Last Rose of Summer and The Fudge Family in Paris (I am not making this up). Lalla Rookh was originally published in 1817, and is an egregious gallimaufry of quasi-orientalist (actually middle-eastern) preposterous tat of a level of maudlin and saccharine mawkishness as to induce diabetic coma and nausea in equal measure, the whole written in badly rhyming mangled tetrameters redolent of nothing so much as a Hallmark “I’m sad to hear your dog is dead” card and shot through with sanctimonious piety and cloying Victorian sentiment such as only the Victorians have ever known how to love, or indeed listen to with a straight face. Thus, just so you know what I have to sit through sometimes:
“And now – behold him kneeling there
By the child’s side in humble prayer
While the same sunbeam shines upon
The Guilty and the guiltless one
And hymns of joy proclaim thro’ Heaven
The triumph of a soul forgiven”
Ninety minutes of this drivel, even with the immeasurable mercy of it having been translated into German (by Emil Flechsig, a friend of Schumann, whose liver presumably dissolved in the process) and suddenly even E.J. Thribb has his attractions (not least his brevity). But then the whole later C19th sensibility was geared towards this sort of grisly guff, and in taking it absolutely seriously, Schumann remarkably not only never compromised himself musically, but actually managed to produce his first widely popular success.
As the eponymous Peri – a winged sprite who’s been booted out of paradise for some unspecified misdemeanour (trying to unionise the other peris, perhaps, or distributing prophylactics) and is gagging to get back in – Sally Matthews has both the scale and range for the role, including a terrifyingly prolonged high C held against both chorus and orchestra going flat out at the end. Alas, I’m not sure I like her natural sound much, which strikes me as “clothy” and rather thick-toned, with a lot of jowl and glottal cover which makes her diction very indistinct (about all of which I acknowledge she can do next to nothing by way of remedy). But given the relatively forward clarity of Kate Royal’s soprano – here confined to ancillary anonymous “vocal quartet” duties – I half wonder whether the two women would have been better cast the other way round in terms of inherent vocal character (not to mention the fact that, conversely, Matthews has the technical chops to negotiate rapid gruppetti cleanly whereas Royal doesn’t, fudging them in her thrice-uttered Maiden’s prayer in Part Two).
And I’m afraid, for me at least, the gilt has worn off whatever gingerbread Mark Padmore’s lean and terribly English voice once had going for it. Nowadays, the application of any pressure in pursuit of power or volume finds his tone spreading to the point that a definite sense of pitch gets lost in a welter of sawdust-dry bluster and bleat, and the fact that his German remains exemplary isn’t much by way of compensation in this kind of repertory. Indeed, Andrew Staples, partnering Kate Royal as the largely nugatory tenor in the “anonymous quartet” struck me as having far more of what is wanted from the Narrator in terms of sweet and secure vocalism than Padmore, and, as with Royal and Matthews, I think an opportunity was lost in not reversing the casting.
Which leaves me with the two finest performances amongst the six soloists, the remaining members of the quartet, Bernarda Fink as the alto, and Florian Boesch as the bass. The former is also called upon to do duty as the Angel who bars the importunate peri’s path back to paradise in the first two parts and also sets out the astonishingly vague terms under which she might be readmitted (a specimen of something dearest to God. A drop of a dead hero’s blood fails to work in Part One, and so does a girl’s sigh over her plague-dead lover in Two – don’t ask – but a penitent’s tear over a praying child does do the trick in Three, just as well otherwise we’d all need buckets if there was a Part Four). The bass gets to incarnate Gazna, an Indian warrior in Part One – still don’t ask – and has some exquisite solos in Three apostrophising golden melons in Syria and sadly contemplating the peri’s drooping wings, as one does. Fink’s voice is a thing of beauty, warm and womanly without tipping over into fruitiness, perfectly even in emission, clear as a bell and above all effortless. Why she isn’t better-known, or heard here more often, God alone knows. And Boesch is another such marvel: of its kind, a perfect baritone instrument, with an almost seductive quality to the soft singing, clear yet confiding, suave yet sensuous. He, and Ms. Fink, can come back any time they like, singing anything it pleases them to offer us, and I’ll be there without fail.
I can think of many arguments for Simon Rattle taking over the LSO, but none to me more personally persuasive than that he at least brings singers such as these – neither of whom, naturally, has ever sung at the Royal Opera House – with him as a matter of course. But there’s also the inescapable fact that he galvanises his forces in a way that few conductors do (well, Dudamel does too: but I can certainly live without the results if the past two nights’ efforts in the RFH with the Venezuelans are anything to go by). Latterly, the LSO – in between brief bouts of Gergiev conducting the only repertory which suits him (Russian, of course) – has increasingly seemed to me like a rudderless ship. But with Rattle at the helm, there is an unmistakable sense of high purpose and intentionality about everything that happens musically – whether you even like the results or not – that bespeaks integrity and devotion. And Schumann, generally regarded as an incompetent orchestrator and box-office poison to boot, benefits hugely from such an approach, resulting in a performance tonight that not only blazed and became thoroughly airborne, but sold the house out from floor to ceiling.
In fact, there’s no undue calls made on the orchestra in this work: and Rattle fielded an historically accurate force of 40 strings – utilising period-practice minimal vibrato – with just the normal pairs of wind and bare-bones brass. Only the very lusty-sounding chorus pushed the boat out, with over 100 singers wedged into the unaccommodating Barbican platform’s rear-risers. Rattle carefully marshalled these forces: his ear for balance remains as keen as ever, and there were some ravishing examples of phrase and hushed dynamic. But what really impressed anew was his ability simply – simply! – to enable a performance, rather than impose one. The concert was relayed live by BBC Radio 3, so for a while you can check it out for yourself: and I believe that the Berlin outing – with Topi Lehtipuu as the Narrator and Gerhaher rather than Boesch, but otherwise the same team – can be accessed on the Philharmoniker’s website. Either way, you really should hear the work, the most unexpected case of a composer making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear that I can readily call to mind, and one which showcases Simon Rattle’s particular talents at their best.