Franz Schmidt's 'The Book With Seven Seals' at Grant Park

August 27, 2011

by Salvatore Calomino, Opera Today

Carlos Kalmar conducted his forces with the intensity needed to retain the devotional focus and tension throughout the lengthy work. In the extended and demanding role of Saint John the tenor Robert Künzli gave a riveting performance of vocal and dramatic strengths. Participating in various solo and ensemble parts the well chosen cast was made up of soprano Edith Lienbacher, mezzo soprano Christa Ratzenböck, tenor Alexander Kaimbacher, and bass Albert Pesendorfer.

The orchestral prelude to Schmidt’s composition returns, as appropriate, at the close in one of several musical gestures underlining the cyclical nature of the work. In much the same way, the vocal declamations and variations on these are performed in complementary passages near the start and at the end of the work. In the role of both introducing and concluding the piece Künzli’s unflagging Saint John called upon his listeners to recall the sacrifice of Christ. Further, he announced that revelations concerning the end of the world would truly come to pass. Künzli’s approach was at times dramatic and ringing in delivery, whereas at others he used a lighter tone on softer intonation (e.g., the word “gewaschen” [“washed”] in “Der uns geliebet hat und gewaschen von den Sünden” [“He who loved us and washed us from our sins”]). In the role of the Lord’s voice Pesendorfer gave a consistently strong impression in vocal flexibility. His extended mid-range notes on “Ich bin das A und das O” were followed by exhortations to approach the heavenly throne with well projected articulation on low bass notes. After this declaration from above Saint John described the heavenly throne with Künzli achieving specific emphasis on the dramatic “Donner und Stimmen” (“thunder and voices”). As he concluded this description with rapid tempos on “einem fliegenden Adler” (“a flying eagle”), the remaining “Wesen” or “beasts” were enumerated in their positions surrounding the heavenly throne. At this point the additional soloists are first heard as part of a quartet in the parts of the beasts. The soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor were joined by Pesendorfer in the quartet as Kaimbacher’s emotive tenor called memorably the holiness of the Lord. For the remaining portions of the prologue the Chorus and Saint John, alternating with the other soloists, introduced the substance of the Book with its seals, the concept of sacrifice, and the preparations to open the Book and announce its revealed wisdom.

Just as the first mention of the Book in the Prologue was heralded by the accompaniment of the organ, Part I and Part II of Schmidt’s work are both introduced by extended organ solos. As each of the first six seals of the Book is opened in Part I, a symbolic figure occurs together with descriptive events on the earth. The Grant Park Chorus, first as a whole and then divided into groups, communicated in their well-rehearsed performance the fate of individuals as the firs two seals released the white and red horses of the apocalypse. Male and female groups of the Chorus conveyed the violent ravages and the intense suffering as a result of war and its devastations. Künzli’s moving summary that “Hölle folgte ihm nach” (“Hell followed after him”) brought a transition to the third seal or the black horseman of hunger. Pesendorfer’s solo in this role introduced a duet for mother and daughter. Ms. Lienbacher and Ms. Ratzenböck sang here with especially effective, merging vocal lines, so that the pain and desperation of human needs were touchingly communicated. After Saint John declared the fourth seal opened, and the pale horse of death was announced, the two male survivors sang that in death they are brothers. Kaimbacher and Pesendorfer performed with fervor their individual parts of the complementary duet which coalesced in a Biblical quote that found both voices perfectly matched. For the earthquake associated with opening the sixth seal toward the close of Part I both Chorus and orchestra swelled into a crescendo ending on “O wer kann da bestehen?” (“O who will be able to stand?”).

The organ solo at the start of Part II has a more ominous tone than in Part I with, as played here, somewhat more pointed individual notes. In the introduction to Saint John’s announcement of the seventh and final seal being opened Künzli lavished emotional effects on his long monologue detailing the original battle between angels and dragon. Orchestral effects were carefully matched to vocal lines so that trumpet and percussion led to a message of judgment. The solo quartet “Wehe euch! Das vierte Wehe” (“Woe! The fourth sorrow”), as introduced by the bass and integrating the other voices skillfully, warns of the celestial lights being extinguished in preparation for the time of judgment. From here to the conclusion of Schmidt’s work the Chorus shares the sung pronouncements with Saint John and with the voice of the Lord. Saint John declares now that a second Book was brought forth, the “Buch des Lebens” or Book of Life, in which are listed those who will be saved. As Künzli reiterated this line with emotional emphasis on “Leben,” the series of repetitions commences which echo the start of the work. His further, emphatic treatment of the prophecy of “Worte” (“words”), as here most appropriate, led to a resolution with the Chorus on the word “Amen!” Chicagoans are fortunate to have heard performances of such commitment of Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals. These concerts by distinguished soloists and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus under Kalmar will surely rank among the finest presentations of this masterpiece.