The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024

Review: Schumann’s Paradise at The Glasshouse

A neglected classical masterpiece got a rare North East performance and David Whetstone was there to hear it
A standing ovation for soloists, orchestra and Chorus at The Glasshouse at the weekend

This has been the stand out concert for me since last August when Dinis Sousa, Royal Northern Sinfonia principal conductor, was picking out some highlights of the orchestra’s forthcoming 2023-24 season for me.

They were all highlights, of course.

But when looking ahead to the performance of Robert Schumann’s oratorio, Paradise (Paradise and the Peri, to give the work its full title), he lit up.

“It’s my favourite thing but it’s so rare that we get to hear it. I think it’s his finest creation for orchestra.

“I suppose in the context of today it’s quite over the top, with very florid language, and it’s not a straightforward text, not Biblical like the Messiah or the Passion.

“But the music and the way it serves the text is mind-blowing. It’s so, so good.”

Ahead of Sunday’s performance, he reaffirmed his love on a stage packed with RNS musicians and the near 90-strong RNS Chorus, and in a hall that was decently populated if not packed.

Dinis Sousa with the 2023-4 classical season brochure

Perhaps that wasn’t surprising.

Before putting down his microphone and picking up his baton, Dinis said he expected no-one in the hall would have heard the piece performed live before or even heard a recording (not sure about that – it seemed a knowledgeable audience).

He spoke of “an incredibly beautiful, moving and thrilling piece of music that somehow has been neglected.

“It was Schumann’s most well received piece of music and a few years after his death it disappeared. I don’t quite get why it’s been forgotten. It’s some of the best music you’ll ever hear.”

So having set the bar incredibly high, did the piece and the performance of it meet expectations?

Absolutely. It was for me, as Dinis had promised, a journey into the unknown and a thrilling one.

Who knows when we’ll hear the piece performed in the North East again? The soloists said afterwards they would be happy for an instant repeat. This is one listener who’d be up for that.

There were passages where I felt simultaneously inclined to toe-tap to the flowing rhythms and immobilised by the need to catch every note.

At the end of the first act, there was silence unbroken by applause or the usual coughing fits. But it was a silence that spoke volumes. A man along the row muttered “Wow!” under his breath.

Afterwards mezzo-soprano Adèle Charvet, one of the five soloists, said even she had wanted to clap.

So what was it about if not Biblical?

Dinis gave a plot summary before the music started, telling us about a Persian mythological angel barred from Paradise who roams the world in search of a gift that will persuade the gods to grant admission.

The blood of a young freedom fighter killed in a tussle with a tyrant doesn’t do the trick. Nor does the last sigh of a lover lost to the plague. These unwanted offerings account for the first two acts.

The final act, after the interval, finds the Peri hitting the jackpot with tears shed by an old sinner moved to repent by the sight of a child praying.

Soprano Louise Alder. Photo by Gerard Collett

Schumann, who died aged 46 after suffering for years with his physical and mental health, took his inspiration from a story by the Irish poet Thomas Moore who was Lord Byron’s literary executor.

Frankly, though, because it was all sung in Schumann’s native German, they could have been singing about Thomas the Tank Engine and I would have been none the wiser.

The beauty and aching emotion was all in the music and a composition that a watching Clarence Adoo, long-time musician and member of the RNS Moves ensemble, rightly called “balanced”.

The performances were wonderful with celebrated soprano Louise Alder leading the line, ably supported by Matthew Brook (baritone), the aforementioned Charvet and a pair who stood in at relatively short notice, soprano Marie-Sophie Pollak and Laurence Kilsby, the young English tenor who also impressed here in Handel’s Messiah.

All radiated their appreciation of this neglected 181-year-old masterpiece and the same can be said of the Chorus, celebrating its 50th anniversary, and an orchestra that never fails to deliver and overcame what I took to be some considerable challenges in delivering this Schumann tour-de-force.

Post performance – Laurence Kilsby, Louise Alder, Adele Charvet and Marie-Sophie Pollak

Who knows when we’ll hear the piece performed in the North East again? The soloists said afterwards they would be happy for an instant repeat. This is one listener who’d be up for that.

Sunday’s concert was dedicated to the memory of Tony Pender, champion of the arts, and attended by many friends and family.

Tony, founding chair of The Glasshouse International Centre for Music (when it was still being called the regional music centre), and chair for many years of Royal Northern Sinfonia, died in November.


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