A strange oratorio gets grand treatment by Grant Park Orchestra

August 13, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

You’ve had the experience. While traveling, or perhaps during a holiday time visit to a friend’s family, you’re offered a local, traditional specialty to eat, something of which the makers are very, very proud and that they assure you can be had nowhere else. Often the dish is basically inedible. Almost always it is at the least an acquired taste.

Music has its equivalents of this phenomena. German and Italian pop songs come to mind. In the classical world, perhaps the greatest, and certainly one of the largest, examples is the 110-minute oratorio from the New Testament Revelation of St. John the Divine, “The Book with Seven Seals,” by the Austrian Franz Schmidt. Written from 1935-1937 and calling for large orchestra, male and female choruses, five to six vocal soloists including a heldentenor (a Wagnerian “heroic tenor"), organ and even a xylophone, the work was given its premiere in Vienna in 1938, just eight months before Schmidt died in 1939 at 64.

The temporal parallel to the rise of Nazism and the Anschluss with Austria, the subsequent Apocalypse the Germans rained down on Europe and Schmidt’s naive flirtations with welcoming the Nazis when so many of his colleagues fled, shunned or were persecuted by them have seen some ascribe to this work a depth and a taint neither of which is apropos.

This is, rather, a provincial work of great ambition with a number of effective passages by a second-tier composer. It is well worth hearing, however, both because it is being given a rare, effective and even definitive performance by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus and for how it shows the difference between a diligent and experienced composer such as Schmidt and the geniuses of his country whom he held himself up against, Bruckner and Mahler (to say nothing of his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg who left in the dust Schmidt’s attempts to extend late Romanticism into mid-century).

Kalmar this weekend joins the ranks of Austrian and adopted Austrian conductors who have tried to make a case for “The Book,” including Josef Krips, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Franz Welser-Most and Fabio Luisi. (Various members of the Estonian Jarvi conducting family are Schmidt advocates, too.) With the assistance of the Austrian Consul General of Chicago, Thomas Schnoell, and the Austrian cultural ministry, Grant Park was able to secure five Austrian singers who clearly share the Festival artistic director’s devotion to the piece. Christopher Bell’s superb chorus received the bulk of its precise preparation from William G. Spaulding, the American chorus master of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. Toss in the remarkable setting (but cut the over-boosted amplification) of the Pritzker Pavilion and Schmidt could not have been better served.

Hoping to offer as much of the strange often hallucinatory-seeming book as possible (in its German translation), Schmidt challenged himself to make musical sense out of a text of shifting dreamscapes. At times he succeeds as with passages of the narration given a Wagnerian lyricism by tenor Robert Kuenzli (that is when they do not go on forever as in the second of two major parts) or the briefer choral passages (those not mired in excessive fugues that sound like compositional exercises) and just about all the parts for the (here) four other soloists.

Bass Albert Pensendorfer has three passages as The Voice of the Lord all of which are wholly winning, and his duet with tenor Alaxander Kaimbacher of two men still living after the Fourth Horseman has ridden through was moving as was the duet of daughter and mother in the wake of the Third Horseman’s carnage with soprano Edith Lienbacher and mezzo Christa Ratzenboeck.

But Schmidt, who early in his career wrote an opera based on Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” does not always have the dramatic insight nor musical vision to make sense of the larger text or its format. Scenes of bloodshed are set to light and bouncy tunes. Sometimes it sounds as if the circus is coming to town, at others as if a Warner Bros. animated animal is tumbling down some stairs. But then he wins you over as when a touching male a cappella thanksgiving follows a heavy Hallelujah chorus and is followed in turn by John’s solitary farewell. David Schrader plays the organ solo introductions to the two parts eloquently.

It’s a jumble alright. And sometimes a mess. But it’s played and sung with passion, insight and love. And its doubtful that you’ll have another chance to hear it again. Certainly not at this level. Here: Take just one more bite.