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27 Aug 2011
Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals at Grant Park
In keeping with the festival nature of the piece, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, along with guest soloists and a guest chorus director, gave two performances of Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln on recent weekend evenings.
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
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.