Recordings of this work are few and far between, which I believe is more to do with the relative obscurity of Schmidt than with any logistical issues; the forces involved are not very much larger than any other oratorio. Since its premiere in 1938 given by Oswald Kabasta and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the work has received around 10 recordings in total (6 of which involve an Austrian orchestra), most of which are derived from live performances, and have now become difficult to source. Here are three recordings that represent the work in the best light.
The Standard Choice: Welser-Möst/BRSO
- Stig Andersen (John), René Pape (The Voice of the Lord), Christiane Oelze (soprano), Cornelia Kallisch (contralto), Lothar Odinius (tenor), Alfred Reiter (bass), Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
- Recorded 1997
- EMI 7243 5 85782 2 5 (2CD)
Franz Welser-Möst is a very good Schmidt conductor. His Fourth Symphony with the London Philharmonic was quite fine, and so is this Das Buch with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, recorded from live performances in 1997. Welser-Möst’s interpretation is well-paced and lively, and his natural musicality is evident in his attention to textural clarity and orchestral balances. Still, I feel that the music could benefit from stronger point-making (than Welser-Möst seems content to give) in order to elevate it into a truly special experience; specifically, the theatrical effects Schmidt employs in the opening of the second (Track 9) and sixth (Track 14) seals could be rendered with just that much more colour and intensity. As would be expected, the orchestra’s playing is excellent, and so is the choral singing. René Pape sounds marvellously commanding in his brief passages as the Voice of God, while Stig Andersen delivers his lengthy part as the Evangelist with aplomb, and even though he does occasionally sound strained, the same can be said for almost everyone else who has tackled Schmidt’s unforgiving writing. The sound is a bit pale and distant (some judicious spot-miking would be good to bring out its wealth of inner detail), but is otherwise acceptable. Given that this is probably the recording that is easiest to source nowadays, I can recommend it as a first exposure to the work.
A good, objective interpretation, with some very fine singing and playing; it just lacks that final ounce of inspiration that would have elevated it from the merely fine to the outstanding.
The Historical Choice: Mitropoulos/VPO
- Anton Dermota (John), Walter Berry (The Voice of the Lord), Hilde Güden (soprano), Ira Malaniuk (contralto), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Walter Berry (bass), Dimitri Mitropoulos (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Wiener Singverein
- Recorded 1959
- Sony SM2K 68 442 (2CD)
This is a document of a performance given during the 1959 Salzburg Festival and is hitherto the earliest recording of the work. Mitropoulos’ conducting is extraordinarily fiery; try, for example, the hair-raising “earthquake” fugue (track 15) which is full of rhythm and accent, all the while delivered at a blistering pace. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with astounding colour, drama and virtuosity, and whatever ensemble issues they encounter are very few and far between. While not the most refined, the chorus sings with total commitment; witness the fervency with which they cry out their hallelujahs (track 24). Meanwhile, the cast of soloists are the best ever assembled. The quartet sounds more overtly operatic than Welser-Möst’s cast (and make the Heilige, heilige fugue sound more like Beethoven’s Ninth), while Anton Dermota’s Evangelist (and NOT Fritz Wunderlich, who strangely graces the cover of the Andromeda/Archipel reissue) sounds fresh and inspired right through the final farewell where most other tenors have become frayed. The recording is excellent mono; in fact, it captures the brass and percussion much more vividly than in the EMI recording. Enthusiastically recommended.
Mitropoulos’ fiery conducting and the committed contributions from the orchestra and chorus make for a thrilling recording that shows what Schmidt can sound like when he isn’t played safe.
The Modern Classic: Harnoncourt/VPO
- Kurt Streit (John), Franz Hawlata (The Voice of the Lord), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Marjana Lipovšek (contralto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Franz Hawlata (bass), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Wiener Singverein
- Recorded 2000
- Teldec 8573-81040-2 (2CD)
This recording is something special. As is his wont of not taking anything for granted, Harnoncourt delivers a highly personal interpretation. He sets the tone from the very opening which is taken at a very measured tempo, evoking more a stately processional than the jaunty carillon we get in most other performances. The pastoral scenes in the Prologue are as gorgeous as one could wish for, while the concluding choral section “Thou Art Worthy” is full of majesty (and brings to mind the end of the Gloria in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis). Yet, when the calamities of the broken seals are inflicted on the earth, all hell breaks loose. In fact, there are so many gripping moments in this recording, I’ll just mention two of them. Harnoncourt takes the fiery red horse’s gallop very slowly, highlighting the syncopated rhythm’s unsettling insistence, and unleashes the pent-up energy at its climax with almost unbearable intensity (sample 1). Meanwhile, the very end of the work, with the three tam-tams pealing and crashing (as the Psalmist said, praise Him with clashing cymbals!), and the final stroke resounding away into infinity, is an unforgettable, cathartic experience (sample 2).
The soloists are as good as any version, especially the excellent Kurt Streit who seems more comfortable than Stig Andersen in the Welser-Möst recording, and it’s evident that the singing of the Wiener Singverein has improved much in the intervening 40 years since the Mitropoulos performance. However, in terms of orchestral playing, there is simply no competition. The Vienna Philharmonic has rarely sounded more dedicated as they do here; not only do they outshine their past self in terms of tonal beauty and ensembleship, they also throw their Bavarian colleagues, fine though their playing is, into the shade. The sound is also incredibly lively and detailed, with lots of presence and dynamic range.
All things considered, this is the most compelling reading of the work that I’ve heard so far. Even though its Harnoncourtian idiosyncrasies preclude it from being a recommendable first recording, the sheer intelligence of his interpretation places it in a league above all other recordings. It seems that this disc has remained out of print for quite a while, and is not even available on streaming platforms. It’s high time that Warner reissued it for our enjoyment.
There’s a palpable sense of occasion to this recording; Harnoncourt’s masterfully original interpretation and the orchestra’s exceptional execution makes this the Das Buch of choice.