Abbé’s unexpected delights
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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
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.