Schmidt: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln
PERFORMER: Johannes Chum (tenor), Robert Holl (bass-baritone), Sandra Trattnigg (soprano), Michelle Breedt (mezzo-soprano), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), Manfred Hemm (bass), Robert Kovács (organ); Wiener Singverein; Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Kristjan Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5061(2) (hybrid CD/SACD)
Was God – or at least the God of Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals) – a Nazi? Certainly in giving the Hitler salute at his oratorio’s premiere, presented in Vienna’s Musikverein just three months after the Anschluss, and then embarking upon a celebratory sequel entitled Die deutsche Auferstehung (The German Resurrection), Schmidt seems to have been pinning his colours, however naively, to the Nazi mast. But equally the reason why this revelatory work is still too rarely performed, despite boasting the most heavenly ‘Hallelujah’ chorus since Handel, may simply be that it’s still deemed too ‘Germanic’ to travel: of the three previous major recordings, two hail from Austria, the third from Munich. Like all three, this too is live; and like both the 1959 Salzburg performance under Mitropoulos (with Anton Dermota a raptly inspired St John and Fritz Wunderlich as second tenor) and Harnoncourt’s millennial Musikverein version, it features the Wiener Singverein (which gave the premiere), though not the Vienna Philharmonic (which didn’t). The Tonkünstler Orchestra may not boast the latter’s sheer sheen, but under Kristjan Järvi’s impeccably paced control it more than survives the work’s many death-defying challenges. Where this new version really trumps both the magisterial (but mono) Mitropoulos and the over-boxy (and at times over-exaggerated) Harnoncourt is in the quality of the recording itself, excitingly atmospheric – coughs, shufflings, applause and all – and giving real presence to the full-throated choral singing and all-important brass. With Robert Holl a sympathetically soft-grained God and Johannes Chum a sweetly lyrical rather than heroically over-forced St John, this Book now stands as top choice.