Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (Boulez/BBC, soloists)
An attempted revivalist meeting was held in St John's, Smith Square, on April 9. Pierre Boulez conducted the BBC SO and Chorus, together with some sensitive soloists, in Schumann's neglected cantata Der Rose Pilgerfahrt. This performance was thought to be its first in Britain since 1893, which I take to mean that someone looked it up in Bernard Shaw, after which that faint flush of interest soon faded. This reflects the Rose’s own history. It first saw the light in spring 1851, and after a brief floruit withered into oblivion. It would be nice to say that the revival brought it back to life, or at least brought life back to it. Instead the work was just laid out respectfully and, I thought, with unnecessarily extreme unction.
I suppose no-one can be blamed for construing it, and hence performing it, as all act of sentimental piety. The pilgrimage from plant to angel via incarnation as mother and maiden does indeed sound vaguely devout. It also seems impossibly bogus for the agnostic Schumann. Must it not have been intended as a work of social realism (not to say real socialism) like the Scenes from Faust? The written evidence looks as conclusive as the musical evidence should sound. Schumann deliberately formed his amateur poet’s verses into a convenient frame for his own scene-painting and decor, The instrumental motifs of village life are as overtly occupational as the mime in “What's My Line?” The mill-wheel is aptly depicted by a quick turn; its machinery “clacks so busy by the brook” as to make Schumann the precursor of Kipling as the tone-poet of work and trade. Far too little of this was made vivid or graphic. Not even the sexton’s digging motif sounded trenchant enough.
Admittedly Schumann’s vital powers were failing. But that is surely all the more reason for vigorous and robust resuscitation, not the obsequious and defeatist kiss of death. At least the work deserved to be performed as failed realism, not successful humbug. Some of the text was recalled to life vocally (no small achievement), notably by Ian Partridge and Jill Gomez; but otherwise I found this Rose much more colourless and spineless than I think Schumann intended.
The Musical Times, Jun., 1975 (p. 552) © the estate of eric sams