Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International

This disc will attract attention because it is the first collaboration between Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO—almost their very first recording—to be released since it was announced that Rattle would take over as the orchestra’s Music Director in September 2017. His contribution, at least, is worth hearing. He has said elsewhere that Giulini put him on to this work, but that it took him a long time to get round to it. He is making up for it now, though, and he lavishes love on this score. Rightly so, at that. Schumann’s not-quite-opera-and-not-quite-oratorio is undergoing a bit of a resurgence at the moment because our era has learned to live with the sentimentality that the last century too readily turned away from. The tale of the fallen angel who is looking for a route back into Eden can now be appreciated for its musical rather than its moral message. It’s easy to forget just how original Schumann’s work is, bringing the overt emotionalism of opera into the more constrained environment of the concert hall. It’s also very pictorial, with its depiction of the Egyptian desert or the clash of Turkish armies—cue cymbals and piccolo. Its melodic inventiveness is unceasing, however, and it’s pretty fast-moving so that the fingers never drum.

You can really tell that Rattle loves this work. His approach is full of affection—listen to the care he lavishes on the stunning ending of Part Two—but also architectural breadth. He broadens out the tempo dramatically at the end of Part One, for example, to heighten the dramatic impetus of the quest, but there is then a very different kind of slowing at the start of Part Two to evoke the Peri’s disappointment. Each part is sculpted with an eye to the dramatic shape, culminating in an exciting final dazzle as the Peri is admitted to heaven. Rattle also manages to eke some very unusual sounds out of the LSO. The strings seem to play with minimal vibrato. Overall their sound wasn’t out of keeping with the period approach of, say, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who play this work with modern instruments but 19th-century style. He isn’t above creating a gorgeous warm Romantic glow around the sound in places, though: just listen, for example, to the clarinets at the Peri’s Ich kenne die Urnen.

The male soloists are inspired to raise their game in the process. As the narrator, Mark Padmore’s tenor sounds more vivid and warm than I’ve heard him in a long time. The same is true for Florian Boesch’s bass, who is all luxurious smoothness, with none of the grit that has marred some of his recent records—he sounds sensational in Part Three. Likewise, even though Andrew Staples doesn’t have much to do, he makes a big deal out of it and is very moving in his solos.

I wasn’t so switched on to the women, though. Sally Matthews never really relaxes into the role and fails to achieve the luxuriant richness of the likes of, say, Margaret Price on Giulini’s recording—required listening. Although never quite lapses into histrionics she never sounds entirely comfortable either. Bernarda Fink even has a touch of the warble to her sound; nor does Kate Royal sound great as the plague victim’s lover: rather unsteady and lacking in bloom. The Chorus sound fine in places, such as the Nile Spirits or the other Peris, but they are a bit breathy in slower sections, and the men are too in-your-face for comfort.

That’s a shame, because it means that, despite its many virtues, this recording won’t replace the likes of Giulini, Harnoncourt (RCA-BMG) or Gardiner (DG-Archiv), all of whom are better for entirely different reasons. Go to Giulini for the feeling of an Old Master painting, Gardiner for the thrill of discovery and Harnoncourt for perhaps the finest solo singing of all.

It’s worth saying, though, that LSO Live have really gone to town on their presentation for this release. You get both a double SACD and a BDA (audio only, no film) in one package, together with a booklet containing Stephen Johnson’s essay, cast biographies, sung text in German and the English translation. However, the translation is pretty naff, going back to Thomas Moore’s rather excruciating source material when it can, but departing from it when the German text does, thus making an awkward half-way house which will please neither authenticists nor those who want a more literal translation of the German.