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Visual arts >

Abbé’s unexpected delights

THE Hungarian-born Franz Liszt, who took minor orders late in life (thereafter he was known as the Abbé Liszt), was world-renowned as a concert recitalist of dazzling brilliance.

His works for piano (including a magnificent Sonata and many virtuosic arrangements) run to countless volumes; his large-scale organ works, notably the Prelude on B.A.C.H., are also frequently heard in the concert hall.

As a song-composer he is justly revered. Liszt’s reputation as a writer for choirs, however, has curiously languished, even though several works suggest themselves for the repertoire: the Missa Choralis, Via Crucis, and a pair of “legends” relating events in the lives of two saints, St Elisabeth and St Stanislaus. The last, a rather tentative effort, was left unfinished, but has recently been completed and recorded by Telarc.

Eclipsing all of these is Christus, a glorious large-scale oratorio, full of magnificent solo and choral writing. In particular, Liszt incorporates, near the start and close, settings of both Stabat Mater texts: the one depicting the Virgin Mary rejoicing in the birth of the Christ Child, and the other evoking her grief beneath the cross.

Now this rare oratorio has received an exciting and passionate performance, thanks to a collaboration between the Liszt Society, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir, and the Leicester Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the Liszt scholar Dr Leslie Howard.

The music is uplifting. Despite the odd drawback in exposed string passages (not least the beautiful opening, virtually a pastoral symphony), there was much to welcome in this performance.

Although the story, spanning Christ’s birth to the resurrection, feels oddly telescoped, certain key moments — the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the calling of Peter, the stilling of the storm, and a powerfully moving evocation of Gethsemane (“Tristis est anima mea”) — were sung with deep insight and profound sensitivity by the baritone James Rutherford.

The solo quartet came across strongly, both with and without chorus; while in several passages for paired upper- and lower-voice solos, Liszt excelled himself, writing chromatically inflected music that looks back to his friend Berlioz and forward even to Elgar’s Gerontius.

The bass Stephen Wells and the mezzo-soprano Wendy Dawn Thompson, soaring above the Benedictus and launching the “Stabat Mater dolorosa”, came across particularly splendidly in Leicester’s beautifully refurbished de Montfort Hall.

Numerous superlative touches in the orchestral writing included the link for cor anglais, bassoon, and clarinets into the angel’s appearance to the shepherds; much graphic detail for solo woodwind; cheerful cellos and basses for the wise men; and a passage for dark unison strings which seems to hail from Liszt’s Faust Symphony.

The choir, characterful, confident, and notably well prepared by Richard Dacey, Director of Music at Repton School, coped nobly with some difficult sustained slow sections, responded ably (notably some spruce tenors) to exposed fugal leads; and was especially convincing in the many extended built-up passages with massed orchestra, where Liszt recurrently introduces an exciting climax — even an outburst. It can feel slightly formulaic; but more often, as at the thrusting passage depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, it thrilled.

Mendelssohn, too, was working on an oratorio entitled Christus when he died; from the fragments that survive, we surely lost a  masterpiece. So we can be doubly grateful to the Liszt Society and these committed Leicester performers for revealing the rare treasures of this rewarding work by one of his contemporaries. Credit, too, should go to a local audience who braved unknown repertoire, only to be unexpectedly delighted by this intense, dramatic, and highly colourful oratorio.


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