Simone Young conducts Schmidt’s ‘Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln’

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COMPOSERS: Franz Schmidt
LABELS: Oehms
ALBUM TITLE: Franz Schmidt
WORKS: Das Buch mit seiben Siegeln
PERFORMER: Inga Kalna (soprano), Bettina Ranch (mezzo), Klaus Florian Vogt, Dovlet Nurgeldiyev (tenor); Volker Krafft (organ), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass); NDR Chor; Staatschor Latvija; Hamburg Philharmonic/Simone Young
CATALOGUE NO: Oehms OC 1840

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What a bold and enterprising move on the part of Simone Young to present Franz Schmidt’s great if somewhat neglected oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals) for her final concert as music director at the Hamburg State Opera in June 2015. First heard in Vienna in 1938 only three months after the Nazis occupied Austria, it’s undoubtedly a work with some potentially uncomfortable historical baggage, particularly given its dramatic trajectory. It proceeds through a sequence of apocalyptic visions of the abyss, yet culminates in a powerfully affecting Hallelujah chorus promising a new world order of heavenly and eternal radiance. Whichever way one wants to interpret the subtext behind such a work, there’s little doubt of its musical mastery which combines the harmonic sophistication of the  Austro-German late-Romantic style with many passages of contrapuntal virtuosity that allude to Bach’s Passions.

Throughout this live performance, Young marshals the huge forces at her disposal with impressive authority and commitment, and the Hamburg Philharmonic responds with some distinguished playing, especially from the wind and brass. Young is particularly inspired in the nightmarish sections of the First Part where chorus and orchestra are at their most incisive.

Tenor soloist Klaus Florian Vogt presents a lyrical rather than heroic portrayal of Johannes, but there are a few intonation problems here and there, and the solo voices in general are placed a little too far forward in relation to the orchestra. It’s a pity, too, that with a such a relatively unfamiliar work, Oehms did not follow the rival version under Kristjan Järvi on Chandos in providing an English translation of the text for those lacking a working understanding of the original German.

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Erik Levi