Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra in ardent account of 'Seven Seals'

August 15, 2011

by Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra have been successful at presenting pieces unlikely to be performed at a summer music festival. Friday night they had a success with one of the unlikeliest, Franz Schmidt's 1937 oratorio, "The Book with Seven Seals."

In Vienna the work is considered the masterpiece of a composer who once was second in popularity to Anton Bruckner. But as long was true of Bruckner's music, most of Schmidt's did not travel well, and the "Seven Seals" represented the epitome of regional taste.

Had Kalmar's performance been recorded, it might have changed some minds, for this Chicago premiere was more ardent than any account on disc, having an impact in many sections that proved strong, immediate and irresistible.

Schmidt wrote that his effort was to "succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer" to a text condensed from the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine. To that end, the sections for five vocal soloists and chorus are of greatest importance. The orchestra accompanies and tone paints but not in such ways as to emphasize musical invention over verbal meaning.

This causes problems over the 110-minute span. Often the words create pictures of greater fervor and grandeur than their accompaniment. So the visions described by a tenor taking the role of the young St. John are distanced both by the mode of telling common to oratorios and a conservative musical language further reined in by modesty and piety.

Much in the "Seven Seals" is difficult. It is the difficulty of form and tradition rather than hyper-intense emotion. Schmidt was the same age as Arnold Schoenberg but did not push boundaries. His late Romanticism can sound comfortable, almost academic.

Kalmar rediscovered the beating heart. Turned-up amplification destroyed gentler passages, but fervor was unmistakable, particularly in the closing pages, when an ecstatic "Hallelujah" chorus is scaled back to men's voices and, finally, St. John singing alone. Work of guest chorus director William G. Spaulding and the Grant Park Chorus made the evening memorable.

The standout among the well-matched soloists – Austrians all - was Robert Kunzli, whose John had lyric sweetness as well as the ring of a heroic tenor on which Schmidt insisted. Bass Albert Pesendorfer was darkly commanding as The Voice of the Lord and chilling as one of two war survivors (the other was sweet-voiced tenor Alexander Kaimbacher). Soprano Edith Lienbacher and mezzo-soprano Christa Ratzenbock had their most deeply felt moments in an exchange between daughter and mother. David Schrader's two extended organ solos achieved cumulative power.