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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln from the Revelation of St John the Divine for Soloists, Chorus, Organ and Orchestra (1935-37) [112:59]
Johannes Chum (tenor) - St John
Robert Holl (bass-baritone) - The Voice of the Lord
Sandra Trattnigg (soprano); Michelle Breedt (mezzo); Nikolai Schukoff (tenor); Manfred Hemm (bass)
Robert Kovacs (organ)
Wiener Singverein 
Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Kristjan Järvi
rec. live, Wiener Musikverein, 29 September and 2 October 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHSA5061(2) [64:04 + 48:55]
Experience Classicsonline

With a recording of shattering clarity and mass impact Chandos enter the Schmidt lists with confidence. They do this with a live recording complete with applause at the end of each of the two parts and audience ‘ambience’.

A slightly more nimble than usual pace is set for the finely swinging: 'Gnade sei mit euch und Friede’ (tr. 1) and the same tempo is adopted for ‘Ich bin es, Johannes’ at the end. This music is the magnificently confident and sanguine Alpha and Omega of the piece. Its return in the last segment of this wonderful piece lends a finality and sense of triumphant arrival that has to be heard to be believed. The role of St John is the great test for the tenor. Johannes Chum passes the test with flying colours. While the tenor is admirably steady and commanding, the bass Robert Holl is commanding but tremulous. The intrinsic tone of this fine singer is as wholesome as ever but the vibrato is regrettable. It was not always this way. If you hear him on Orfeo C143 862H with ORF forces conducted by Lothar Zagrosek alongside the miraculous Peter Schreier in 1984 there is no tremor. Strange to compare it with the most recent EMI recording where the tenor (Stig Andersen) wobbles noticeably and the bass (Rene Pape) is sturdy and life-enhancing.

To come straight to the point then - this is the best recorded version of Franz Schmidt's Das Buch Mit Sieben Siegeln ever. There is one reservation and it's a significant  one and it centres on Robert Holl. His bass-baritone when under sustained pressure wobbles in a way that contrasts with the exceptionally green and resilient voice of Johannes Chum. Holl has recorded this work in his role as The Voice of the Lord before age began its depredations. There are two excellent predecessors where he was in better fettle: the Orfeo-Zagrosek already mentioned above and with the fabled Anton Dermota on Preiser 93263 from 1975 with the same orchestra as Järvi but conducted by Alois J Hochstrasser. In fairness on Chandos he is fine at Ruhet noch (CD1 tr. 15) and in most of Ich bin das A und O (CD2 tr. 8). That original Holl version is still easily accessible on Orfeo - even if the recording is one dimensional by comparison with the spatial wonders of this Chandos version. Meantime if you can overlook Holl's vibrato or have a taste for it then Chum as St John can be enjoyed to the full. The role of the bass is after all quite brief. 

In Und ein Tür ward aufgetan im Himmel Chum's lean rich voice brings memories of the tenor line in Bantock's Omar Khayyam. The vocal quartet who sing the Heilig, Heilig section in canon make a nice meld. The Wiener Singverein, time after time, delight and terrify with their warm and fully resolved tone as in Herr, du bist würdig and in Herr du heiliger und wahrhaftiger (CD1 tr.14). The solo trumpet in Und ich sah in der rechten hand is predictive of those potent disillusion-laden trumpet calls in Schmidt's Fourth Symphony. Chum catches the right air of awe and fear before the Komm Komm Komm section (tr. 10) and the trumpets are magnificently present as is the massed precise yet exciting choral singing of the Der Herr! Der König der Könige. This is singing that has sparks flying in spindrift from the crest of its rolling wave; a great tribute to the chorus master Johannes Prinz. Death and destruction, murder and mayhem peel off as outriders from this fearful music. The hermeneutic parallels in history are inescapable. The yowling and croaking devils are made tangible by the orchestral writing. Side-drum, gong, dripping percussion and deep inimical brass sound out as, one after another, the seals are broken and the book opened.

We change to CD2 for the opening of the final seal. Part II begins with a massive organ solo which rather recalls the organ solo in the celestial stairway scene in the film A Matter of Life and Death. The trumpet music for The Appearance of the Rider on the White Horse is exciting and eager. Chum matches it with just the right barely contained excitable tone. He proves a glowingly worthy successor to Dermota, Patzak and Schreier. The snarling trumpet and trombones - underpinned by a cough or two - open the contralto solo that is Die posaune verkündet. This section is visceral with its galloping triumph arcing across the firmament and with the piercing trumpet that ends the scene. The piled high Halleluias ring out with the wildest of exaltation and a smashing weight grounded by the groaning brass (5:20). This work is colossal in its effect yet yielding in its spirituality. And when, after all those Halleluias and the awed thanks of the a cappella Male chorus in imitation of plainchant, the sanguine swinging confidence of the opening returns there is a priceless sense of Ulyssean homecoming. The final crashing of gongs and steel sheets wrings from the music that final apotheosis. No wonder that it drew from the otherwise impassive audience a bravo and the thunder of applause.

Mervyn Cooke's notes remind us that this work has been caught up in politics and the composer fuelled this. When the work was premiered in Vienna on 15 June 1938 under the baton of Oswald Kabasta the composer was seen to give a Nazi salute at the end. He welcomed the Anschluss. This takes us deep into the condemnation of music on account of the politics of its creator; for me just as retrograde as the exaltation of music because of the admirable politics or behaviour of its creator. For me the two stand separate. Biographical background is always interesting but the music should be judged on its own. Too often we expect our favoured composers to be saintly or if not saintly then like us. Why? Do listen to this music in its own right. For me it emerges in shining triumph.

The US premiere came in Cincinnati in May 1954 conducted by Josef Krips. Interestingly Eugene Goossens had conducted the Cincinnati orchestra in the 1930s - his last work had the same subject matter as Schmidt's - The Apocalypse. A 2 LP recording of the Goossens made under Myer Fredman in Sydney in the 1980s awaits reissue by ABC on compact disc. It was Krips who revived the Schmidt at the Salzburg Festival in 1950 and Mitropoulos revived it there in 1959 and there’s a recording issued on Melodram MEL 27078. The work's British premiere came in May 1966 when it was condemned outright for its conservatism and no doubt for the composer's politics. Mind you much the same was happening at the same time to the works of many other composers who espoused the lyrical and the tonal - and this despite their unexceptionable political views. It should perhaps come as no surprise that the 1960s musical establishment should revile a composer who dealt in melody and grandeur.

Is it now possible that someone will give us a complete recording of Schmidt's final choral-orchestral work Die deutsche Auferstehung? Despite its odious subject matter - the celebration of Austro-German reunification it should at the very least have curiosity value. Schmidt died in 1939 with the Second World War lying days in the future and never experienced the horrific fulfilment of his adulation for Hitler.

There are other versions of this great work. Historic recordings appear from time to time and are worth tracking down. However the Orfeo is good and the EMI - now available at mid-price - not quite so good given the critical fallibility of its tenor, Stig Andersen. If you can take stressed sound then don’t miss Mitropoulos and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Dermota, Berry, Güden and Malaniuk from 23 August 1959 at the Salzburg Festival. On an Amadeo set of LPs AVRS 5004/05 (though I know there has been at least one unauthorised CD transfer) there is Patzak, Otto Wiener, Steffek, Töpper, Majkut and Guthrie with the Graz Cathedral Choir and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anton Lippe. This dates from January 1962. The Preiser recording mentioned above has Dermota, Holl, Kyriaki, Töpper again, Moser and Korn with the Grazer Concertchor from December 1975. Before that in 1972 and although never issued on CD there is a memorable version conducted by the composer and organist Anton Heiller with Schreier and Staempfli. A broadcast from New Year’s Eve 1981 was directed by Gustav Kühn with the Austrian Radio Orchestra and Choir alongside Schreier and Theo Adam.

The dynamic range on this Chandos recording really is extraordinary and its grip on the listener surely makes it one for the shortlist for all the industry prizes going this year.

For now and for all practical purposes this is the leading version of Schmidt's masterpiece. 

Rob Barnett

Detailed Track-List

CD1  [64:04]
1  St John: 'Gnade sei mit euch und Friede' [2:39]
2  The Voice of the Lord: 'Ich bin das A und das O' [3:01]
3  St John: 'Und eine tür ward aufgetan im Himmel' [4:47]
4  The Four Beasts: 'Heilig, heilig ist Gott der Allmächtige' [2:08]
5  The Elders: 'Herr, du bist würdig, zu nehmen allein' [3:17]
6  St John: 'Und ich sah in der rechten Hand dess'' [1:34]
7  St John: 'Ein Engel rief' [3:57]
8  St John: 'Nun sah ich, un siehe, mitten vor dem Throne' [6:34]
9  Organ Solo [3:30]
10  St John: 'Und als das Lamm der Siegel erstes auftat' [2:15]
11  St John: 'Und als das Lamm der Siegel zweites auftat' [6:24]
12  St John: 'Und als das Lamm der Siegel drittes auftat' [4:45]
13  St John: 'Und als das Lamm der Siegel viertes auftat' [4:48]
14  St John: 'Und als das Lamm der Siegel fünftes auftat' [4:10]
15  The Voice of the Lord: 'Ruhet noch und wartet eine kleine Weile' [2:01]
16  St John: 'Und ich sah, daß das Lamm der Siegel sechstes auftat' [8:00]

CD2 [48:55]
1  Organ Solo [2:51]
2  St John: 'Nach dem Auftun des siebenten der Siegel aber' [3:06]
3  St John: 'Ein Weib, umkleidet mit der Sonne' [9:56]
4  St John: 'Ich sah den Himmel aufgetan' [2:03]
5  St John: 'Und als die große Stille im Himmel vorüber war' [1:22]
6  Contralto Solo: 'Die Posaune verkündet großes Wehe' [8:41]
7  St John: 'Vor dem Angesischte dessen, der auf weißem Throne saß' [4:26]
8  The Voice of the Lord: 'Ich bin das A und das O' [5:49]
9  Chorus: 'Hallelujah! Hallelujah!' [5:59]
10  Male Chorus: 'Wir danken dir, o Herr, allmächtiger Gott' [1:41]
11  St John: 'Ich bin es, Johannes, der all dies hörte und sah' [2:48]



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