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Dip Your Ears, No. 213 (A Seven-Seal One Man Show)

Franz Schmidt is one of the great 20th Century romantics and his oratorio, The Book of the Seven Seals is his grandest, certainly most ambitious work. (The symphonies are much more accessible and best to start with; for example No.4, the re-issued Welser-Möst recording of which was on the Best Recordings of 2006 list.) Franz Schmidt has a chapter in Surprised by Beauty and it merits quoting from, at length: 

available at Amazon
F.Schmidt, The Book of Seven Seals,
S.Young/Philharmoniker Hamburg
K.F.Vogt, G.Zeppenfeld

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F.Schmidt, The Book of Seven Seals,
S.Andersen, R.Paper
EMI (Warner)

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F.Schmidt, The Book of Seven Seals,
J.Chum, R.Holl
Chandos SACD

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F.Schmidt, The Book of Seven Seals,
A. Dermota, W.Berry

Franz Schmidt said that this oratorio, based on the last book of the New Testament, was his “legacy to the world.” By 1933, his work had taken on additional gravity and weight after the death of his daughter, in whose memory he wrote the Fourth Symphony as a threnody. Through his years of heart trouble, Schmidt had lived with the fear of death and must have felt its approach when he undertook this gigantic task in 1935.

As he noted in his introduction to the work, he was the first to attempt such a comprehensive setting of St. John’s Book of Revelation. Even in abbreviation, setting the apocalypse and the millennium to music was a supreme challenge. Schmidt said, “My approach to the work has always been that of a deeply religious man and of an artist....If my musical setting of this unparalleled work, which is as relevant today as it was at its creation eighteen and a half centuries ago, should succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer to it, then that will be my greatest reward.”

Like the text itself, The Book of the Seven Seals requires close attention. The subject naturally leads to overwhelming expectations. Working with those expectations, but also against them, Schmidt creates a number of surprises. At the sight of “Him that sat upon the throne,” one would expect a musical outburst of Mahlerian proportions. Instead, the Four Beasts sing an exquisite solo vocal quartet: “Holy, holy is God the Almighty.” Schmidt draws on the great oratorio tradition going back to Haydn, if not further, but, within classical restraints, adds every element of his individual genius to dramatize the Ultimate. The confidence, ingenuity, and subtlety with which he proceeds through such a huge text in a nearly two-hour work is astounding.

There have been a few, if not very many recordings of this tricky masterpiece, notably by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Vienna Phil., Telarc/Warner), Franz Welser-Most (BRSO, EMI/Warner), and of course the man who premiered it, Dimitri Mitropoulos (Vienna Phil, Sony). More recently there have been recordings from Kristjan Järvi (Tonkünstler Orchestra Lower Austria, on Chandos) and Fabio Luisi (MDR Leipzig RSO, on Querstand). And then there are some more obscure recordings by Alois J. Hochstrasser and the Tonkünstler (Preiser), Horst Stein and the Vienna Symphony (Profil), and Lothar Zagrosek with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra [Orfeo]. Mostly Austrian affairs, except for Luisi who traversed most of Schmidt in his time in Leipzig. Now another ‘outside’ has thrown their hat in the ring and then put their name in that hat: From Hamburg, with the Philharmonic (now Kent Nagano’s outfit) and the NDR and Latvian State choruses, comes a recording on Oehms under Simone Young. I’ll admit that Simone Young has never, live or on record, elicited more than a yawn from me, so I looked forward to this release with some trepidation. But any kind of prejudice is best treated with repeat exposure, and this being Schmidt, I wanted to hear what the new forces had to say. Most importantly, Young has an asset on her recording no one else has: Klaus Florian Vogt is her Johannes in that all-important tenor part.

Now Klaus Florian Vogt’s timbre is a divisive thing: “unearthly beauty” say some; others find the ‘glass-bell’, chorister-like sound unappealing. Consider me in the middle, as far as the timbre is concerned. It works for some roles tremendously well, but probably not universally. But because of the timbre and the type of his voice, Vogt can sing ‘above’ an orchestra instead of powering through it. This allows him a quality that few, if any, tenors can match. He never yells, he never belts, he never pushes. He is my ideal Lohengrin and Erik (Flying Dutchman) and Parsifal – and because he is a fine actor, I am all the way in his camp when it comes to opera. The Schmidt Book of Seven Seals certainly has operatic qualities, and it certainly demands a powerful tenor to navigate the thicker moments (surprisingly few though there are) of the orchestration. But neither of those qualities are particularly necessary or a bonus when it comes to a recording – even a live recording. And because the orchestral element is, sadly, uninspiring, this Book of Seven Seals becomes a Klaus Florian Vogt-showcase and pivots entirely on the question of whether one actively wants to hear his voice a lot, and prominently, in Schmidt’s oratorio. Anyone who wishes to hear this work as whole, though, is better off with just about any of the other recordings. In the Surprised by Beauty chapter we recommend Mitropoulos (despite the ancient sound; it’s a feverish account and he’s got Fritz Wunderlich as the second tenor and a terrific Anton Dermota as a first), Kristjan Järvi (who uniquely has SACD surround sound), and especially Welser-Mö

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