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), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), Manfred Hemm (bass), Wiener Singverein, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Kristjan Järvi.
Chandos CHSA 5061 (SACD) (2) (F) (DDD) TT: 112:59

Great piece, okay performance. History has not been kind to Franz Schmidt. In many ways, he was the quintessential Viennese composer of his day, which coincided with Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, and Korngold. He won all sorts of prizes from the music-loving Viennese, and deserved every one of them. While not as groundbreaking as the above composers and essentially conservative, you can't really call him hidebound. While he disliked Mahler's music (he called the symphonies "cheap novels"), he interested himself in Schoenberg to the point of getting up a performance of Pierrot lunaire, and his music shows strong similarities to Mahler anyway.

The central works of Schmidt's output comprise his four symphonies and this oratorio. All of these scores sum up a separate period of Schmidt's artistic development. He begins as a follower of Bruckner (although far more concise) and progressively moves toward freer dissonance, without ever reaching atonality. Das Buch to me constitutes his greatest work, one of the great choral masterpieces, although it has yet to catch on as a bona-fide hit.

For one thing, it's difficult as sin. It boasts several complex fugues for chorus, and the orchestral writing sometimes tops Strauss in its contrapuntal virtuosity. Quite expensive to perform, it calls for huge forces, including six soloists and an organ. Franz Welser-Möst, who conducted the work more than once and recorded it as well, had to postpone the premiere with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus by a year. Like the Mahler Eighth, however, it justifies its cost.

Schmidt began the work in 1935 and wrote it thinking he had little time left to live (he died in 1939). He intended it as a spiritual and musical testament and poured a lifetime of serious, solid composition into it. Based on the Book of Revelations, it represents a change in direction from his previous style of Schoenbergian expanded Gurrelieder tonality. Indeed, in certain sections -- like the war in heaven, for example -- he crosses over from the Late Romantic - Early Modern twilight into full-fledged Modernism.

The work opens with a blaze of brass, as the apostle John (Schmidt specifies a Heldentenor) announces his vision, followed by the voice of God (a bass) proclaiming himself the Alpha and Omega. The four beasts appear, and the Lamb, and we arrive at the opening of the seven seals, the heart of the oratorio. The opening of the second seal brings the rider on the red horse and the Apocalypse. Schmidt rises to the musical challenge with visionary, dramatic music, especially when he describes the bleak aftermath. At this point, he departs from Revelations to depict a starving mother and daughter as well as two survivors who barely recognize one another as human. From the opening of the seventh seal, the oratorio begins to brighten. The old dragon is defeated, and God's judgment, harsh on sinners (and everyone else), is praised as righteous. The work ends on a series of grandiloquent hallelujahs -- rhetorically, the weakest part for me -- and then, surprisingly, an a cappella chant from the men's choir. John finishes the work by, in effect, signing his book.

Schmidt pays great attention to fashioning a dramatic trajectory, both through the libretto and through the music itself, but it's a huge, nearly two-hour span. It takes a great conductor not only to keep individual sections clear, but to make the entire work cohere. I have heard three recordings: Mitropoulos on Sony, Welser-Möst on EMI, and now Järvi. I haven't heard Harnoncourt (well-reviewed) or Horst Stein (one enthusiastic review on Amazon). Mitropoulos gives a fiery reading, but in glorious mono from the Fifties. The sonics don't measure up to the piece. Järvi, on the other hand, has by far the best sound of the three, but it's a flat reading that fails to move anywhere. Welser-Möst, hampered occasionally by boxy sound at the big climaxes, nevertheless delivers overall the best performance by far of the three. Järvi almost manages to make the work dull, although Chandos's engineering thrills all by itself.

S.G.S. (July 2008)