VIENNA — Between Requiem Masses and elaborations of all sorts on the Gregorian Dies irae, Judgment Day rolls around almost like clockwork in the concert halls of the world. But how about musical adaptations of the Book of Revelation, which projects the end of history onto the most tremendous screen of all? The Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt was canvassing subjects for a sacred oratorio when it occurred to him that no one had ever attempted such a thing before. In 1935, he set out to fill that gap with Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (“The Book With Seven Seals”), completed about two years later. The Wiener Symphoniker and Wiener Singverein gave the premiere at the renowned Musikverein on June 15, 1938. It’s germane to note that the Nazis had “annexed” (read “invaded”) Austria three months before; Schmidt’s death would follow seven months later; and World War II was to break out seven months after that.
In early October, the Vienna-based conductor Ingo Metzmacher led Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln with the same orchestra and chorus in the same hall. Shades of Parsifal in Bayreuth or Allegri’s Miserere at the Vatican — and a first-rate opportunity to acquaint oneself with a magnum opus that has seldom seen the light abroad. The timeline sketched out above suggests the reasons why; for a detailed account, consult Daniel J. Wakin’s expert backgrounder in The New York Times, targeting the release of Kristjan Järvi’s live recording of the work in 2008.
With the Third Reich gaining ground, a musical fresco of the End of Days will have struck Schmidt’s first listeners as timely to a fault, if not, in the worst way, prophetic. Yet the oratorio, like the source material, presents itself as incontrovertibly good news — “good news” in the sense of gospel, evangelium, at least for God’s elect. The piece begins on a joyous note, and so it ends, with the righteous enthroned in their New Jerusalem. Never mind the wicked, lost, and gone forever. They had it coming.
The late Nikolaus Harnoncourt placed Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln in a direct line of descent from Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine; Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427; Haydn’s Harmoniemesse; Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; and the German Requiem of Brahms. (Strange, given what he did include, not to find Messiah, the B Minor Mass, and Britten’s War Requiem on the list, but let’s not overthink this.) The high praise may imply a caveat. Such cathedrals in sound, it seems to say, transcend mere music. They exist for all humankind, yet at the same time, they belong to the few. You’re on holy ground here. Take off your sandals. Pull up your socks.
As Schmidt’s notes for the premiere of his oratorio suggest, he meant to pitch the biggest possible tent. Working from Martin Luther’s translation, he took a massive blue pencil to St. John the Divine’s phantasmagoria. “I knew that I had to preserve as much of the essence of the text in Luther’s original language,” Schmidt wrote, “while at the same time reducing its immensity to dimensions the average human brain can grasp.” What remained were John’s most picturesque postcards from the edge, none more so than the Four Horsemen — War, Plague, Death, and Famine. The tsunami of esoteric allegories following the universal earthquake, on the other hand, disappeared without a trace. Thus, Schmidt managed to present, in just under two hours, a skeleton Revelation that feels both majestic and complete.
His prelude lasts just four bars, all in quarter notes. Bar 1 belongs to the first horn. The first oboe and first clarinet join in for the second bar. The third bar adds the second, third, and fourth horns along with the second oboe, second clarinet, and both bassoons. The strings enter in bar 4. And in bar 5, John takes off, addressing us personally: “Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from Jesus Christ, who is the first begotten and the prince of the kings of the earth. Who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
Here and throughout, John’s text is more concentrated than the Biblical source material, yet end to end, the role is endless. Strange to tell, Schmidt conceived it for a heldentenor. Yet the premiere went to Anton Dermota, a tenor of decidedly lyric cast. His interpretation survives in a performance recorded live in Salzburg in 1959, sounding wondrous. In 1998, Franz Welser-Möst cast Stig Andersen, a Siegfried and a Tristan in heavy international demand, here monochromatic and woefully out of sorts.
The tenor announced for Metzmacher’s self-effacing yet luminous interpretation was the Mozartian Rainer Trost, who fell ill after the first of three performances. In the second, which I attended on Oct. 6, Trost’s junior colleague Maximilian Schmitt took over. He’s a Mozartian, too, but one with Wagnerian aspirations, with the roles of David and Erik already under his belt. Originally cast in the oratorio’s sparingly employed SATB quartet of soloists, Schmitt stepped up undaunted, his voice pealing with confidence, as jubilant in his farewell as in his opening salutation (which are sung to the same music). Along the way, Schmitt proved a plain-spoken yet riveting narrator, melodious in parlando styles reminiscent of Bach’s Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion (which is in his repertoire) and Strauss’ Herod and still more so in Schmitt’s rare passages of arioso.
The other principal part is the Voice of the Lord, heard from in only three brief but mercilessly exposed passages. The bass Stephen Milling, in his prime a Gurnemanz to rival his better-known contemporary René Pape, delivered the lines from on high, flanked by the pipes of the organ. If Milling’s line is not what it was at the turn of the century, the nimbus remains, and an empathetic listener could take the will for the deed.
A quartet of excellent soloists — Siobhan Stagg, soprano; Dorottya Láng, mezzo; Jan Petryka, tenor (spelling Maximilian Schmitt); and Jan Martiník, bass — is likewise deployed with extreme discretion: no showboating allowed, even in incidental hosannas. Stagg and Láng had a moment to shine as a starving child and a desperate mother; inevitably, Mahler’s harrowing vignette “Das irdische Leben” came to mind, though Schmidt’s treatment is nowhere near as fierce. The harsh words of Famine — “One measure of wheat and three measures of barley for the lot of you” — registered pitilessly in Martiník’s hard staccato. A subsequent duet for Petryka and Martiník as the last living men on earth verged on Sprechstimme yet felt too supple for that, even as its desolation recalled Britten’s parallel “Strange Meeting” for tenor and baritone in his War Requiem.
Portraying heavenly hosts, murderous agents of the Apocalypse, panicked mankind hurtling into the abyss, and finally the elect caroling in heaven, the chorus faces no end of showy challenges. At its apogee, the complexity of Schmidt’s counterpoint outdoes Wagner’s riotous double fugue in the Act II finale of Die Meistersinger. It’s often said of the historic all-amateur Wiener Singverein that its members don’t sing to live, they live to sing — and that’s how they sounded. The sopranos, in particular, hit their stratospheric marks in the great Hallelujah as if prepared to take a sip of water and do the whole piece all over again. Robert Kovács took the virtuosic organ part with authority.
As soloists and as an ensemble, the Wiener Symphoniker likewise did themselves proud. Conducting with self-effacing yet visionary aplomb, Metzmacher brought out qualities in the score that felt distinctive, even unique. In his hands, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln stood apart on the one hand from opera, with its typical focus on vocal display, and on the other hand from symphonic program music, with its focus on “pictorial” effects. Rather than illustrate what the graphic language already illustrates, Schmidt the composer uses song and symphonic music to evoke unseen movements of the soul, shifting kaleidoscopically as events unfold on a scale past comprehension. For every cataclysm in the score, there’s an oasis of silence, perfectly still yet charged with awe.