Friday 26 February 2016

Oehms Classics have captured a live performance of Franz Schmidt’s oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln marking the conclusion of Simone Young’s term as Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra

Austrian composer, Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was a pupil of Anton Bruckner and Robert Fuchs at the Vienna Conservatory. He was cellist in the Vienna Hofoper orchestra for much of the time under Gustav Mahler before teaching at the Staatsakademie and the Musikhochschule. Though influenced by Schoenberg, Debussy and Hindemith he continued to compose in the grand tradition of Austro-German music.

His works include four symphonies, chamber music, organ works, two operas and the oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (1935-1937) on themes from the biblical Book of Revelation of Saint John. It was completed in 1937 and first performed in Vienna in 1938.

Oehms Classics have just released a recording of a special performance by Simone Young and the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra When Simone Young laid down her baton on 15th June 2015 after a performance of Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals, it was the 45th programme in the 90th Philharmonic concert that she had conducted within the ten years of her term as Hamburg Artistic Director during the period from August 2005 to July 2015.

On this live recording Simone Young and the orchestra are joined by the NDR Choir  and the Latvia State Choir with soloists Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) , Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) , Inga Kalna (soprano) , Bettina Ranch (mezzo-soprano) , Dovlet Nurgeldiyev (tenor) and Volker Krafft (organ).

Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The book with Seven Seals) (1935-1937) comprises of a Prologue and two parts. The principal soloist is Saint John sung here by tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt who, as narrator, opens the Prologue with words of devotion to God the eternal and to Christ the Redeemer. The voice of the Lord God sung by bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, announces that He is the Alpha and Omega, and will show what must come.

There is a brief buoyant orchestral opening to Gnade sei mit euch (Grace be with you) before Saint John enters before the music falls to a hush as a fine melody emerges in the orchestra around the basis of the opening theme. The orchestra gently, yet rather mournfully, ruminates on the theme before leading into  Ich bin das A und das O (I am the Alpha and the Omega) where bass Georg Zeppenfeld and orchestra lead forward bringing a depth and firmness all the while the sound of a hushed bass drum heard underneath the orchestra.  

The orchestra rises in a happier theme for Saint John to enter with Und eine Tür ward aufgetan im Himmel (And a door was opened in heaven) a fine piece with the orchestra adding many lovely instrumental touches, rising through some fine flowing passages. The vocal quartet of Klaus Florian Vogt, Georg Zeppenfeld, Inga Kalna (soprano) and Bettina Ranch (mezzo-soprano) bring a fine combination of voices that blend extremely well. They bring moments of fine drama to Heilig, heilig ist Gott, Der Allmächtige (Holy, holy is God, the Almighty) before a section for male chorus who are on fine form in some beautifully blended textures. Soprano Inga Kalna is really rather fine as she rises above the chorus, soon joined by the others soloists for a lovely Amen.

Und ich sah in der rechten Hand (And I saw in the right hand) brings a sombre feel as Saint John sings the narration but the brass add a brighter texture over the orchestra in the shifting harmonies of this section. Inga Kalna, then Georg Zeppenfeld enter blending wonderfully before some fine woodwind passages as the music gently finds its way ahead.

Nun sah ich, und siehe, mitten vor dem Throne (Now I looked, and behold, in the midst before the throne) opens with a most lovely melody to which Saint John joins bringing some beautifully phrasing. When the chorus enter they are really very fine, finding just the right nuances with organist Volker Krafft adding a rather ecclesiastical sound as the chorus rise to a vibrant, spirited Amen.

Erster Teil (First Part) concerns the opening of the first six seals and tells the history of Mankind and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the Orgel solo the organ rises out of the depths in a rather sinister way, slowly expanding and developing Schmidt’s theme, revealing Schmidt’s shifting harmonies before falling back.  The solo voice of Saint John is heard alone in the opening of Und als das Lamm der Siegel erstes auftat (And as the Lamb opened the first seal) before the chorus and orchestra respond. Klaus Florian Vogt brings a fine buoyancy as do the chorus in this faster moving, vibrant section.

Tere is a solo for Vogt again in the opening of Und als das Lamm der Siegel zweites auftat (And as the Lamb opened the second seal) with shifting, wayward instrumental sounds joining to add drama. The brass add further anguish before the chorus join to add a rising intensity. The orchestra rises to a peak of drama and intensity before falling back, yet the tenor continues the drama with an insistent orchestral accompaniment point up by a side drum.

Und als das Lamm der Siegel drittes auftat (And as the Lamb opened the third seal) again provides a lone tenor solo to which a lovely orchestral accompaniment is added. Bass, Georg Zeppenfeld brings ‘Ein Maß Weizen und drei Maß Gerste für euch alle’ (A measure of wheat and three measures of barley for you all) followed by a fine woodwind section. Mezzo-soprano, Bettina Ranch is soon joined by Klaus Florian Vogt and Inga Kalna in ‘Mutter, ach Mutter’ (Mother, oh mother) before the chorus bring a wonderfully controlled section in ‘Schwestern und Kinder.’ (Sisters and children).

Saint John is heard against the dripping of percussion sounds in Und als das Lamm der Siegel viertes auftat (And as the Lamb opened the fourth seal) as groaning brass create a terrifyingly strange section. Bass, Georg Zeppenfeld joins adding a suitable terror together bringing a terrific sense of anxiety with a moment of stillness before Saint John and the voice of the Lord God continue in a slow melodious tune over a hushed organ.

Und als das Lamm der Siegel fünftes auftat (And as the Lamb opened the fifth seal) is a brief section with Vogt bringing a really strong emotion to the text before the chorus sound out in Herr, du heiliger und wahrhaftiger (Lord, you are holy and true) with a quieter organ accompaniment. The music soon rises in dynamics and tempo in a fine overlay of voices with some terrific descending organ scales.  

Tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt brings a particularly lovely Und es wurde ihnen einem jeglichen gegeben  (And it was given to every one) soon joined by Zeppenfeld in a really fine melody with the orchestra adding a lovely texture. This is a particularly lovely piece, so finely sung. Saint John sings Und ich sah, dass das Lamm der Siegel sechstes auftat (And I saw when the Lamb opened the sixth seal) with an increasing sense of dread before the chorus leap up against the orchestra and bass drum strokes adding more anxiety and drama. They drop to hushed moments before rising each time, the orchestra providing a great swirl. There is some very fine part writing here expertly done by this choir. A succession of rising and falling passages occur for choir and orchestra in a particularly distinctive section before arriving at a terrific climax only to fall to a hush before a sudden orchestral outburst to end part one.  

The second disc of this set brings Zweiter Teil (Second Part) which tells of the opening of the seventh seal and a great silence in heaven. The ensuing narrative is an allegory for the history of the true believers and their Church, from the birth of Jesus Christ, of their struggle against the followers of the Devil and his false teachers, and of the ultimate victory of the righteous. It opens with Orgel solo, a climactic organ passage introducing Nach dem Auftun des siebenten der Siegel (After the opening of the seventh seal) a long narrative for Saint John where the organ drops to a quieter accompaniment to Vogt’s beautifully shaped narration. There are some quite beautiful orchestral moments, finely orchestrated. When the tenor re-joins there are some lovely flights of fancy before he leads on in a flowing melody with lovely woodwind passages and a slowly increasing in sense of emotion.

Vogt brings a fine drama to Im Himmel aber erhob sich ein großer Streit (But in heaven, a great controversy arose) with the orchestra adding some fine layers, almost dissonant in harmony. Later there is an orchestral passage that rises dramatically to a peak before the tenor re-joins. The brief Und als die große Stille im Himmel vorüber war (And when the great silence in heaven was over) has a quiet orchestral opening before Saint John enters with a gentle yet emotionally charged, shifting melody. Brass slowly open Die Posaune verkündet großes Wehe (The trumpet announces great woe) before the mezzo-soprano, Bettina Ranch joins followed by the chorus. Aanother passage for brass ensues before a vocal quartet weave a fine melody interspersed by a longer choral line and brass murmurings. Later there is a fine choral fugal section before they rise to some very fine choral heights, full of rhythmic pulse, strength and forward thrust to a thrilling climax.

Saint John returns with the orchestra for Vor dem Angesichte dessen (Before the face of Him) in which this tenor phrases and shapes beautifully, soon increasing in anxiety with the orchestra revealing Schmidt’s constantly shifting harmonies. Und ich sah einen neuen Himmel (And I saw a new heaven) brings hesitant, quiet orchestral phrases that surround the tenor as the emotion increases. The music falls back as Vogt continues with Zeppenfeld joining, bringing such a strong authoritative voice along with some fine sonorities from the orchestra.  

There is a slow entry into Hallelujah!  that almost immediately rises for choir and orchestra in a tremendous section. There is a distinctive upward moving string motif as the choir sing the Hallelujah, often at ever greater heights, the organ joining to add weight. Wir danken dir, O Herr (We thank you, O Lord) is given by a hushed a capella male choir in the form of a chant, wonderfully done before the brass open Ich bin es, Johannes, der all dies Hörte (It is I, John, who heard all this) soon taken by the orchestra with Klaus Florian Vogt as Saint John joining in a bright and sunny section that brings back the opening theme of the oratorio before rising in a grand Amen.

This performance has much to offer that often only a live performance can give. There is a strong line up of soloists and a first rate chorus combined with expert direction from Simone Young. This is a fine record of a special occasion that stands up well to repeated listening.

The live recording from the Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany is clear and well balanced though the acoustic, that provides a fine depth of sound, brings a slight brightness to the voices. The applause is cut out which does make the end sound rather sudden. 

German texts are provided but the lack of an English translation and no synopsis is a drawback. There are notes in German and English and the set is nicely presented in a card box containing the two CDs in cardboard sleeves and the booklet.

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