Friday, April 18, 2008

Another Buch in the Wall

Franz Schmidt's Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (1935-7) is, in my view, one of the most neglected and underrated "great" works of the 20th Century. Schmidt's unfortunate political views, including his support for the Anschluss of 1938, have no doubt contributed to the relative obscurity of both the oratorio and the composer. Of course, no one seems to mention that Schmidt's wife was confined to an asylum and later murdered as a result of Nazi eugenics policies. Schmidt paid a price never exacted from others like Böhm, Karajan, or Schwarzkopf.

There are really only two "canonical" versions of the piece: Dimitri Mitropoulos 1959 Columbia/Sony account from the Salzburger Festspiele and Franz Welser-Möst's 1998 record on EMI with the SOBR. Mitropoulos' has an intensity and a power that appropriate to the source material, the Apocalypse of John, and Welser-Möst has a certain commitment and style. Also, the latter recording has René Pape as die Stimme des Herrn: an inspired (if you'll forgive me) choice.

There is also a recording out on Querstand's "Fabio Luisi Edition" of the eponymous conductor leading the MDR forces in a sensitive account that is well played and well sung. It's hard as nails to find, but it's worth a look.

Chandos has entered the game, too, with a performance conducted by Kristjan Järvi and the Tönkunstler-Orchester. The set has great sound, good singers, and a solid band behind it. I would say, however, that the thing that sets it apart is the presence of the Wiener Singverein, which makes the choral parts as thrilling and broad or as terrifying as Schmidt intended. A point for example would be either the great chorus in, "Und als das Lamm der Siegel erstes auftat," (König des Könige...) or the choral work in the section generally headed up by, "Nun sah ich, und siehe, mitten vor dem Throne."

It's not a perfect performance. To be honest, I think Järvi underplays some of the moments on which I would go full bore. Also, the Evangelist for this one, Johannes Chum, seems a little underpowered. Let's remember that Anton Dermota premiered the role during Schmidt's lifetime. I don't think a lyric tenor is the best choice or the original intent for Das Buch, though a Heldentenor with the ability to deal with the high end of the tessitura might be a little hard to find these days. (Maybe Ben Heppner, but I don't think it would work out super-well).

This is, however, a better performance than we should have any right to expect given the relative obscurity of this piece. I will stick with Luisi's performance, since Herbert Lippert's Evangelist is more in keeping with my (and I think Schmidt's) concept of the part. It's worth noting that Johannes Chum sings on Luisi's record, too: as the tenor soloist. A voice suited to "Heilig, heilig ist Gott der Allmächtige" is not, in my view, suited to "Gnade sei mit euch." Jan-Hendrik Rootering and Robert Holl both have their charms, and I simply prefer Rootering to Holl. Neither of them, sad to say, can hold a candle to René Pape for Welser-Möst. Between his voice and his intelligent way with the text, he nails the role precisely. Take that for what it's worth.

A new recording of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, even if I prefer other recordings, is always welcome Franz Schmidt's music can make up for a lot of flaws - especially when those flaws are ones of preference, not technical issues.


At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Corey said...

I appreciated your comments, as I've recently heard of, and have been curious about, "Buch." Since reading your review, I ordered the EMI CD from Amazon, but have subsequently learned that the package does not include the text[!]. Do you know where I can find a translation?

At 12:07 AM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

That's the tricky thing. I think the EMI CD offers a link to the libretto, but don't hold me to that. The new Järvi recording might have the libretto, and I know the Luisi set has the German text.

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Corey said...

The EMI disk does not have a libretto, but the EMI Web site does. It includes PDF and text versions, easily downloadable. In fact, I burned "Buch" onto my iPod, and cut and pasted the text version of the translation onto the "Lyric" screen. It lets me read the translation as I listen.

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