May 08, 2008


Franz Schmidt: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Johannes Chum, tenor (St. John); Robert Holl, bass-baritone (Voice of the Lord); Sandra Trattnigg, soprano; Michelle Breedt, mezzo-soprano; Nikolai Schukoff, tenor; Manfred Hemm, bass; Robert Kovács, organ; Wiener Singverein and Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Chandos. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

      An oratorio on a grand scale that uses large choral and orchestral forces but makes some of its most telling effects when it is quietest, Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book of Seven Seals) is a work permeated by contradictions. An irony is that it was first performed in 1938, just three months after Germany’s Anschluss with Austria – and is offered here in a live recording of a performance given in 2005 by the State Orchestra of Lower Austria. But in fact Schmidt’s work transcends its era in its devout approach to the Book of Revelation – indeed, the work seems to belong as much to the 19th century as to the middle of the 20th. Its sound world is primarily that of Wagner, although it harks back much further – to the Baroque – in its prominent organ part (including several lengthy solos) and in Schmidt’s choice of the triumphal key of D major for his extended “Hallelujah” near (but not at) the end.

      But for all the echoes of Wagner (and of Bruckner, with whom Schmidt studied), the conception of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln has many unique elements. One is the leading role of St. John, which is assigned to a heldentenor who is clearly intended to be a young and vibrant man, not the elderly sage he is more commonly portrayed as being. Johannes Chum handles this key role – by far the largest in the work – with intensity and ringing vocal tones. It is his narrative skill, as much as what occurs in the orchestra and chorus, that pulls the oratorio along. The seven-times-sealed Book is revealed – after more than a quarter of an hour of preliminaries – in a section led by bassoons and double basses, in one of many felicitous scoring touches. The Book gets its own leitmotif, and its Seals are opened one by one by the Lamb of God – revealing first, interestingly enough, not War but Christ (a variant interpretation of the rider of the first, white horse). The openings proceed remorselessly, Seal by Seal, with some of Schmidt’s vocal and orchestral touches being especially effective. The breaking of the Second Seal, for instance, brings forth the evil Red Rider, who lays waste to everything – to an incessant snare-drum background that much resembles the motto that Shostakovich would use only a few years later, in his Seventh Symphony, to represent the Nazi advance on Leningrad (the irony here is that Schmidt was, at least for a time, a supporter of Nazi expansionism, albeit apparently a lukewarm one).

      The most interesting music in the opening of the Seals occurs when the fourth of them is broken to reveal Death on a pale horse. This is quiet and very eerie music for xylophone and col legno strings: the horse seems to limp and lurch about as two male voices discuss their survival on a battlefield strewn with corpses. Eventually the oratorio builds to the War in Heaven in which Satan is cast down forever – but this grandiose section is less effective than what follows when the trumpets (actually both trombones and trumpets in Schmidt’s scoring) herald the end of time. Scenes of destruction and glory are told in fugal sections (the score is filled with fugues, another Baroque throwback), the dead are raised, and after the Voice of the Lord proclaims “Ich mache alles neu” (“I make all things new”), Schmidt presents his choral Hallelujah – which is not as effective as it could be. It is certainly loud enough, and the words are triumphal, but the first seven verses are rhythmically identical (although not on the same notes), and the whole thing becomes more repetitious than grand. Yet it is not the end: in a wonderful stroke, the music subsides into silence, followed by a quiet men’s chorus of thanks that is a high point of the work – after which the voice of St. John closes off the revelatory tale.

      Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln is uneven, sometimes frustratingly so, and its mixed musical styles never really gel into a single harmonic vision. But the work has sections of great power and others of surprising lyricism, and Kristjan Järvi leads the soloists, chorus and orchestra with commitment and a sure hand. The SACD sound is outstanding – on regular CD players as well as in surround-sound mode – and the included booklet offers extensive explanatory notes and the complete text of the oratorio. The result is a production that is revelatory, even if the work does not rise to the level of an ultimate Revelation.

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