Grant Park Music Festival 2011 - An outstanding performance of Franz Schmidt's 'Book with Seven Seals'

August 19, 2011

by James L. Zychowicz, Seen and Heard International

In a rare performance of Franz Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals at the Grant Park Music Festival, Carlos Kalmar demonstrated the power of this work through his compelling interpretation of the score. Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals is a setting of the entire text of the Book of Revelation from the New Testament, a tract which describes the end of the battle between heaven and hell at the end of the world. While it is not unknown, it also does not appear regularly in the concert programs.

The score requires five solo voices, including a heldentenor for the part of St. John, who sings throughout the entire piece. In this role Robert Künzli was outstanding, with solid pitch, clear diction, supple tone, and clear lines. The role is demanding for its ambitious, expressive range, and length. Künzli gave a sense of ease with the role from the start, and as much as he introduced various scenes or responded to them, the extended scene at the beginning of the second part in which St. John describes the battle between hell and heaven (“Nach dem Auftun des siebenten der Siegel”) stands out for the powerful expression that shaped the number convincingly. Like some of the narrative soliloquys in Shakespeare’s plays that report a dramatic scene, this number is effective because of the way it plays on the imagination through the narration. Here Künzli was at his finest, without overextending himself or resorting to histrionics, but full of lyricism, dramatic power, and technique.

In a similar way Albert Pesendorfer gave a distinctive reading of the part of the Voice of the Lord. His resonant bass was solid and secure. Likewise, his participation in various ensembles was equally strong for its solid musicianship and fine interpretation. While these two performers stood out, the other three soloists, Edith Lienbacher, soprano, Christa Ratzenböck, mezzo soprano, and Alexander Kaimbacher, tenor also gave exemplary performances that made the duets and quartets stand apart nicely. The duet between Lienbacher and Ratzenböck epitomizing hunger at the appearance of the black horse of famine is particularly noteworthy.

At the center of the piece, though, is the chorus, which brought many epic scenes to life. The tone colors and shadings necessary for the choral pieces were solidly in place, a quality that points to both the preparation by guest choral conductor William G. Spaulding, and the leadership brought by Kalmar. The final choruses of Hallelujah were outstanding in their textured and balanced walls of sound, but the earlier choral numbers held similar power, as with the climactic scene at the end of the first part “Die Erde wankt!” and the depiction of apocalyptic strife in the middle of the second part “Getroffen hat sie Gottes Zorn.” The men’s chorus “Wir danken dir”, before the reprise of the prologue at the conclusion of the oratorio, was stylistically distinct, and because of that wholly effective.

Because of the eclecticism that Schmidt used in this piece, a successful performance relies on the finesse of the conductor to interpret the score cohesively. Kalmar achieved this both within the individual numbers and also in the pacing between them, since one of the challenges in this work is to create effective continuity when recitative leads to an aria, as in the passages between St. John and other voices in the first part, or the celebratory full choruses before the chant-like section near the end.

Kalmar also shaped the orchestra well, and its reading was convincing. This was evident from the outset, as in the intense scene in the beginning, when St. John describing the first vision “Und eine Tur aufgetan im Himmel” takes on dimensions of meaning through the colorful accompaniment. Aspects of film scoring emerge in another narrative, “Ein weisses Ross!”, which was impressive for its nuanced tone. Some of the concluding gestures at the ends of sections were as subtle as chamber music, and the orchestra was with Kalmar completely in those passages. The organ, which has two solo interludes along with various exposed solos in other numbers, was noteworthy for the way the style, sometimes more dissonant than the orchestral and choral writing, fits into the overall conception of the piece.

All in all the challenges of this score emerge not only from the demands of the composition itself but also the lack of a continual performing tradition. The Grant Park Festival met both challenges well and, as a consequence, this intense performance makes a case for future performances of a work that merits rehearing. With a performance so well crafted from its solid start to its impressive conclusion, it is difficult not to share Kalmar’s enthusiasm for this score. A similarly positive response poured from the audience, which was enthusiastic in applauding this outstanding work from the early twentieth century.