Notes and Editorial Reviews
By far the finest reading of this little-heard masterpiece, which combines Bruckner-like counterpoint with a vivid sense of drama. Anton Dermota gives a deeply impressive performance.
I have been seeking out broadcasts and recordings of this oratorio ever since, 20 or so years ago, I first began to suspect that it was a masterpiece. Many of those performances were so dreadful that I began to wonder whether I'd been quite wrong about the work but this, by a long way the finest reading of
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln ("The Book with seven seals") that I have ever heard, triumphantly vindicates it.
Franz Schmidt's oratorio combines learned, Bruckner-like contrapuntal artifice (which in a bad
performance can sound crabbed and boring) with a vivid sense of drama that at times recalls the naive peasant baroque of some Austrian and South German carved altarpieces (and can in a bad performance sound merely naive), at others the horrific realism of Matthias Grünewald. As a composer himself and a man of deep religious conviction Mitropoulos responded to both these aspects, and such haunting passages as the duet for two survivors of the pestilence and death spread by the horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the tremendous earthquake chorus that follows the breaking of the seventh seal have a powerful sense of drama which is emphasized by Mitropoulos's precise care for contrapuntal and instrumental detail. Yes, in this live performance there are a few untidinesses (the rushing violin passages in the gipsy "Hallelujah", not altogether unexpectedly - they are hideously difficult) but the impact and the devout urgency of the reading are not in the least diminished by them.
In the hugely taxing central role of St John, Dermota is deeply impressive. Although the part is often given to a dramatic tenor it responds to a lyric voice that is capable at times of ringing fullness. Dermota matches Mitropoulos's urgency, and clearly means every word of the role. At one point, where a descending vocal line illustrates the text's reference to the four beasts and the elders falling down before the Lamb, it is obvious that the bottom note of the phrase is not within his range. Instead, quietly and reverently, he speaks it, and the expressive effect of this is characteristic of his whole performance. The other soloists, Gueden and Berry especially, are distinguished, and both chorus and orchestra audibly respond to Mitropoulos's conviction.
The mono recording is a little constricted at times, with patches of acid string tone, but it improves and gains impact as it proceeds.
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln still has the reputation of a piece that the Austrians regard as a classic but which doesn't travel. This recording refutes that view with inspiriting eloquence.
-- Gramophone [3/1996]
Works on This Recording
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln by Franz Schmidt
Fritz Wunderlich (Tenor),
Walter Berry (Bass Baritone),
Alois Forrer (Organ),
Anton Dermota (Tenor),
Ira Malaniuk (Mezzo Soprano),
Hilde Gueden (Soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,
Vienna Friends of Music Society
Written: 1935-1937; Austria
Date of Recording: 08/23/1959
Venue: Live Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria
Length: 110 Minutes 42 Secs.
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