OAE / Rattle, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The myriad enticements of Schumann's oratorio, Das Paradies und die Peri, captivated the world during the composer's lifetime. What happened? The fashion for oratorios waned but, more significantly, as the age of enlightenment gave way to the age of scepticism, the work's sweetly sentimental source Thomas Moore's "oriental romance" Lallah Rookh lost its allure. Why had Schumann chosen to invest so much of himself in this philosophic trifle? Suddenly it was a case of too much questioning, not enough listening.

Simon Rattle changed all that, for at least one night. As Schumann's prelude unfolded, bows barely grazing gut strings in his evocation of the mythical Peri at the threshold of Eden, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Choir of the Enlightenment and six excellent soloists were set fair to remind us how many shades of ethereal it is possible to achieve with one piece of music. Schumann's gift was his wholly original way of deploying the familiar in pursuit of the unfamiliar. The surprises creep up on you in this piece an instrumental juxtaposition here, an unexpected harmony there. There's always a touch of madness in the vision: like the rocking string and wind chords depicting the aftermath of a plague. Rattle achieved a terrible pallor with them. His gift is to instil awe by making us listen more intently; the Rattle super-pianissimo was much in evidence.

But mostly, the joy of Das Paradies lies in its elevation of the sentimental to the truly wondrous. The Peri, for instance, with her vision of the steps to Alla's throne, where Schumann despatches a phrase of such gorgeousness that you wonder where it came from. Or the close of part two, where wafting horns transport The Peri and Chorus to an eternity of dreams.

And what an asset was Sally Matthews, our most entrancing lyric soprano, giving voice to The Peri's quest for immortality. She was well-matched with tenor Mark Padmore's characteristically pristine evangelist, but it was she who voiced Schumann's rapture, carrying us onwards and upwards with tone so pure and sure and finally exultant that I'll wager most of the packed Festival Hall will be hoping for a recording.

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