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
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
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
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.