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.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

We're number 47?!

A.C. Douglas has compiled the classical-music blogosphere top-50 rankings for 1Q 2008. Your humble correspondent and his blog, this blog, made the list at number 47. His methodology is here, and here are all the competitors.

Ultimately, having some experience with math, I like his methodology. It seems pretty fair and reasonably accurate. I do, however, take something approximating issue with the underlying premise. More links does not necessarily mean quality. For example, I got a lot of links for suggesting that supporting Gustavo Dudamel was, essentially, supporting Hugo Chávez, whose regime is execrable at best.

Depending on your view of such matters, those links do not imply quality. Indeed, given the tone, the opposite is likely true.

While a ranking based on content quality is, by its very nature, more subjective, it could also more accurately reflect the state of the blogosphere hereabouts. It does get us into quality-by-whose-standards concerns and bias, but that is easily corrected by having two or three people compile lists and average the rankings.

Beyond that, Mr. Douglas deserves credit for taking upon himself to compile a list about as objective as anyone could want.