This is quite a step forward for Schmidt (and for EMI!) with his chef
doeuvre conducted by a member of the rising generation. All credit
to Welser-Möst for leading this project in music which is hardly mainstream
but which deserves to be.
While the fourth symphony was on a Decca LP (Mehta/VPO early 1970s) for the
most part recordings of his works have appeared on the smaller
labels: Orfeo, Classical Excellence, Marco Polo, Opus etc.
What should you expect if you have never heard this piece? It is a giant
of a work setting one of the great texts. The whole piece runs ten
or so minutes short of two hours. The music is approachable, mixing many
set pieces and ringing the changes amongst solo organ, solo and orchestra,
big set-pieces for all soloists, pairs of soloists, choir alone and orchestra
alone. The grand memorably swinging theme at the start also closes the work.
The musical language is closer to Schubert and Brahms than Mahler but is
tartly late-romantic. If you know of Schmidt's other orchestral works you
will have some idea what to expect. The Book has a closer relationship to
the aural world of the second symphony than to the fourth or to the Hussar
Song Variations. There is no hint of the dodecaphonic or atonal.
From the outset (1 Disc 1)with its swinging theme heroically declared by
the striving tenor we know we are in the presence of a grandly ambitious
work. The strain on the tenors voice is apparent contrasted with the
ringing clarity of the strings. The bass is more impressive (2) though prone
to the occasional wobble. Eerie bat-infested skittering strings are a highlight
of track 3. The choral hymn Heilige Heilige evoking angelic
beings stepping around the coruscating light of the sun. This contrasts with
the romance and wood doves of track 6. The strongest partner in the project
are to the fore in track 8 with glorious work by the orchestra and the choirs.
Surely this is the best version in terms of orchestral and choral contribution.
The imminent scourge of war comes across powerfully at 1:40 (9) in militaristic
black toned music. This is contrasted with the tenderness of the extremely
impressive intertwining womens duet in track 10. Spectral offbeat pizzicati
underpin the recitative of the two survivors (11) with a fine sense of
concentration. In (12) Johannes sings of the fifth seal and a great cataract
of sound is unleashed from the preceding the choir singing at Herr du heiliger
in fugally overlapping strata of doom, earthquake and destruction which continue
into (13) with its grumping brass and brilliant depictions of stars falling,
fire and the earth in spasm. Listen to the galloping horns at 1:50 and
screech-owl strings at 2:00 in track (14) in an Austrian parallel to the
whirling winds of Tchaikovskys Francesca da Rimini.
CD2: A phantasmagoric organ solo opens the second disc sounding uncannily
close to the world of Frank Bridges Phantasm (piano and orchestra).
No one has captured the tender dialogue of the woodwinds so well nor the
galloping desperate energy of track 4 carried over into the next track when
the galloping apocalyptic reivers spread destruction and burning brands.
What a picture of Panzer warfare, flame-throwers and the horror of scorched
After this it is a relief to return to the density of tone in alleluias piled
chorally thick, deep and high. These are awesome in their rather static grandeur
somehow thrown into sharper relief by the upward rushing theme which punctuate
the hymns of praise. Track 9 is distinguished by truly quiet singing by the
men and all is rounded out by the memorably triumphal swing of Ich bin
est Johannes bringing us full circle and the crashing ringing Amens add
that sense of fulfilled finality.
In the league of epic works of the twentieth century The Book of the Seven
Seals ranks high. It is more varied and tuneful than Goossens'
Apocalypse, less devotional than Frank Martin's Golgotha,
not as colourful and phantasmagoric as Malcolm Williamson's Mass of Christ
the King or Havergal Brian's Gothic and has more gravitas than
Bantock's masterly and still desperately neglected Rubaiyat of Omar
Khayyam or The Song of Songs.
The ailing Schmidt was writing this work in the years preceding the second
world war. He wittingly or unwittingly seems to tap into the feelings of
the time. His apocalyptic visions were soon to be become material realities.
The 86-page booklet is in English, German and French. The documentation is
excellent with full texts, background and translations not to mention the
composer's programme note for the premiere. There are pictures of the artists
but they are comparatively restrained and are inside the booklet distributed
amongst the pages of the sung text. The conductors portrait is at the
very back of the booklet and page 86 has a photograph of Welser-Möst
conducting. Although I find the design of the cover rather drab EMI and
Welser-Möst are to be congratulated for not portraying the artists.
Instead the first picture in the booklet is of Franz Schmidt in 1935. This
is as it should be. I recall buying a DG boxed set of LPs of Karajan-conducted
Beethoven symphonies in circa 1977. The booklet had page after page of full
size photos of Karajan: masterly, musing and magical. The cult
of music rather than the cult of the artist is what interests
To sum up. The EMI has the best recording quality of the available versions
I know - impact, subtlety, burred brass sounds and finesse from the strings.
The orchestral and choral contributions are exemplary. Welser-Möst's
guiding intelligence catches the elusive and varying spirit of the work.
My reservations relate to the two lead voices which to my taste compare
unfavourably with Peter Schreier and Robert Holl on the Orfeo set. Sadly
the Orfeo's acoustic sounds synthetic and claustrophobic by comparison with
the ideal achieved by the EMI set. The historic mono recording (Sony and
previously Melodram) from 1959 as conducted by Mitropoulos is in a special
The end result is that there is still no ideal version available. I have
scored for the many strengths of this recording. The field remains open.
My version of forced choice would be the Orfeo.
Note: Now EMI how about recording Omar Khayyam? Also will the Promenade gurus
and planners please programme the Schmidt work for the first night or the
penultimate night in 1999 or 2000? Of course it will have to queue up for
that privilege alongside Bantocks Omar Khayyam and Havergal Brians
Gothic Symphony - works of epic imagination and musical mastery.