My fondest musical memory of the year 2016 will probably be the April, 16, performance of Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri by the Russian National Orchestra and the Popov Academy choir directed by Mikhail Pletnev. I expected something unusual to extraordinary. The result was close to the latter thanks to Pletnev’s inordinate understanding of the music, his sensitivity and congeniality to Schumann’s work, and his commitment to it, matched by the commitment of his forces: the choir, the orchestra and, of course, the soloists. I felt like I was hearing, or at least understanding and appreciating, some of the parts for the first time. The performance should have pleased Tchaikovsky’s spirit – “what a divine thing!” he exclaimed about Das Paradies und die Peri in his diary.
By itself, the idea of having a baroque-trained singer for the part makes sense to me. My first recording of the oratorio was this 2001 live version (later reissued) by Joshard Daus and his EuropaChorAkademie, with Simone Kermes as the Peri. Today, Kermes is a famous baroque singer noted for her technical proficiency and flexibility. In 2001, she was probably more of a beginner. Anyway, her delivery stood out then, instantly suggesting: that’s the right Peri – a youthful, focused, “straightforward” voice with minimal vibrato. For the Peri is neither here nor quite there, not of this world nor yet of the other, and too much earthiness and fleshiness in the voice would kill that illusion. John Eliot Gardiner recorded Barbara Bonney as his Peri, who is without a doubt a very fine lyric soprano, but to my ear, a Kermes would have been preferable to a Bonney.
Katherine Manley’s voice is of the right quality for the part but, sadly, was not available in the right quantity that night: the orchestra and choir drowned her out in forte passages. My guess is baroque voices can afford to be relatively small because baroque ensembles are relatively quiet. On the other hand, it’s not that Pletnev cranked up volume to Wagnerian intensity. I had an acoustically good seat so it wasn’t a figment of my relative position. The Conservatory’s Grand Hall is probably the best concert hall in Moscow so warped acoustics cannot be blamed either. Perhaps if Pletnev had allowed recording, the feeds from different microphones could have been remixed to attempt to bring the principal soloist’s voice forward a little bit.
The other two ladies, the Ukrainian-born soprano Alina Yarovaya (not to be confused with the mezzo Victoria Yarovaya) and the also Ukrainian-born mezzo-soprano Alexandra Kadurina, delivered their parts more than just competently, as should be expected of singers trained and specializing in 1850-1950 opera. But their task was less challenging than Manley’s.
Anyway, whatever the minor grumbles, it was an artistic success that doesn’t come often, and only comes through years of work. The wise are saying Pletnev’s comprehension of Schumann follows from his interpretative power in Tchaikovsky’s music.