This lovely, unjustly neglected work should have become part of the mainstream repertoire long ago. Based on a Persian legend retold by poet Thomas Moore, the story is an endearing mixture of Western and Eastern religion.
Setting a Christian vision of Heaven in Allah's garden, it tells of a supplicant tainted not by guilt but by inheritance, who must be cleansed by compassion and undaunted personal effort to be admitted to Paradise.
The music is basically lyrical, tender, and serene but encompasses the depths and heights of intensity, lamentation, devotion, ecstasy, and triumph.
A succession of vintage Schumann songs, sometimes bursting into operatic arias, is held together by often highly dramatic accompanied tenor recitatives and by long passages melding the solo voices with chorus and orchestra; the instruments evoke images of sun, moon, flowers, water, even the clash of war, refuting Schumann's supposed inability to orchestrate.
The singing by both chorus and soloists is beyond praise; the orchestra is wonderfully transparent but often too subdued, evidently by interpretive choice.
Of the two short pieces, the second is more beguiling for its mysterious, shimmering atmosphere.
Schumann Secular Oratorio
The famous panist Leif Ove Andsnes had this to say:
“What strikes me often about Schumann is how much he is loved by musicians, but how often he is misunderstood or under-appreciated by audiences.
And then there are all the wonderful but neglected pieces.
I was ecstatic a few years back when I discovered the secular oratorio Paradise and the Peri, thanks to the marvelous recording by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantiques, Barbara Bonney and a bunch of other wonderful soloists.
How come the major work by Schumann at his compositional peak (the piece was written in 1843, when Schumann was 33 years old) is literally forgotten?
After all, this is music that is as glowing as most of the songs written a couple of years earlier — songs written in a whirlwind of passion after Schumann was finally allowed to marry his sweetheart Clara.
Some have argued that the flowery libretto of Paradise is not very relevant to our time, but I don't see the problem. The oratorio is totally believable and the diversity of feeling Schumann creates is from the highest inspiration. Pure bliss!
Schumann Secular Oratorio History:
Schumann's secular oratorio, "Paradise and the Peri," was written in 1843, and first performed at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, December 4 of that year. Its first performance in England was given June 23, 1856, with Madame Jenny Lind in the part of the Peri.
The text is taken from the second poem in Moore's "Lalla Rookh," and was suggested to Schumann by his friend Emil Flechsig, who had translated the poem. The oratorio is written in three parts, for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, the principals being the Peri, soprano; the angel, alto; the King of Gazna, bass; a youth, tenor; the horseman, baritone; and the maiden, soprano. The choruses are sung by Indians, angels, houris, and genii of the Nile, and the part of narrator is divided among the various voices.