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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
St. Elizabeth (The Legend of Saint Elizabeth) - oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, S2 (1857-62)
Kolos Kováts - Hermann, Landgrave of Thüringen (bass)
Erzsébet Komlóssy - Countess Sophie, his wife (mezzo)
Sándor Sólyom-Nagy - Landgrave Ludwig, their son (baritone)
Éva Andor - Elizabeth, his fiancée, later his wife (soprano)
József Gregor - Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (bass)
Lajos Miller - Hungarian magnate (baritone)
György Bordás - the Seneschall (baritone)
Dušan Turinič - the child Ludwig (contralto)
Eugenia Kraičirová - the child Elizabeth (soprano)

Bratislava Radio Children’s Chorus
Slovak Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/János Ferencsik
rec. 14-17 July 1973, Reduta Concert Hall, Bratislava, Slovak Republic. AAD
Sung in German with full English texts and essay
HUNGAROTON CLASSIC HCD 11650-51 [69:48 + 68:41]



This release of Liszt’s first oratorio is a reissue on two discs of the label’s 1973 Bratislava recording conducted by Ferencsik. One initially wonders why Hungaroton found it necessary to reach down into their back catalogue as they already have an excellently performed and recorded three disc digital recording of St. Elizabeth from 1984 conducted by Árpád Joó. Now after hearing this superb performance I understand why the recording was dusted off and reissued.

Esteemed Hungarian-born conductor the late János Ferencsik was notable as a Liszt specialist. In the early 1930s the young Ferencsik was Toscanini’s assistant at Bayreuth and became an experienced conductor of choral music and opera. He held the post of principal conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonic between 1952 and 1984. Of his Liszt recordings for Hungaroton I especially admire his accounts of the Missa Solennis, recorded circa 1977 on HCD 11861-2 and the Requiem recorded circa 1966 on HCD 11267.

In 1854 Liszt was inspired to write St. Elizabeth by a series of frescoes by the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind in the rooms of Wartburg castle, near Weimar. The Wartburg frescoes include the depiction of episodes in the life of Saint Elizabeth. I have compiled a brief synopsis of the scenario:

Elizabeth born in 1207, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary was brought to the Wartburg castle as the intended bride for Ludwig, the son of the Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia. Elizabeth and Ludwig were married in 1221 and subsequently she relinquished her wealth by dedicating her life to acts of benevolence to the sick and the poor. The popular ‘Miracle of the Roses’ scene tells of Elizabeth, who unknown to her husband was taking food in secret for the poor. Elizabeth was asked by Ludwig what was in her covered basket. As Elisabeth opened the basket the bread miraculously turned into roses. After Ludwig died at the crusades in 1227 Elizabeth for a time suffered banishment and experienced a period of hardship and poverty. She dedicated the remainder of her short life to God and died in 1231. She was canonized four years later by Pope Gregory IX.

For his oratorio St. Elizabeth Liszt commissioned texts from the German poet/writer Otto Roquette. The score was dedicated to the King of Bavaria and was subsequently published as a concert-oratorio. Following the significant events in the life of Elizabeth the oratorio is cast in six scenes and divided into two parts. The booklet provides the following programme:
Part 1
1) The arrival of Elizabeth at the Wartburg.

a) The people and Landgrave Hermann welcome her.
b) Address of the Hungarian magnate.
c) Landgrave Hermann’s reply.
d) First interview between Ludwig and Elizabeth
e) Children’s games and children’s chorus.
2) Landgrave Ludwig.

a) Hunting song.
b) Meeting of Ludwig and Elizabeth.
c) Miracle of the Roses.
d) Prayer of Thanksgiving: Duet between Ludwig and Elizabeth, assisted by the chorus.
3) The Crusaders.

a) Chorus of Crusaders.
b) Recitative of Landgrave Ludwig.
c) Ludwig bids Elizabeth farewell.
d) Chorus and March of the Crusaders.
Part 2
4) Countess Sophie.

a) Dialogue between Countess Sophie and the Seneschal
b) Elizabeth’s Lament.
c) Elizabeth’s Banishment.
d) Tempest.
5) Elizabeth.

a) Prayer.
b) Dream and Thoughts of Home.
c) Chorus of the Poor - Deeds of Charity.
d) Elizabeth’s Death.
e) Angel’s Chorus.
6) Solemn burial of Elizabeth.

a) Orchestral Interlude - Repetition of the principal motifs.
b) Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.
c) Death-Chorus of the Poor and of the People.
d) Procession of Crusaders.
e) Church-Chorus. Hungarian and German Bishops.

Liszt conducted the première, evidently using a Hungarian translation of the German libretto, in Pest, Hungary in 1865 as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations for the foundation of the Pest Music Conservatory. Only eight days later he gave another performance this time at Weimar. Biographer Alan WalkerA explains how Liszt, who had only recently taken minor holy orders, gave the Pest première wearing the cassock of a Franciscan monk. There was another notable performance of St. Elizabeth given in the presence of Liszt. This was conducted by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and sung in English at the St. James’s Hall, London in 1886. According to Edward DannreutherB early performances that Liszt produced were in the form of an opera sacra (sacred opera).

The extended orchestral introduction St. Elizabeth is conducted with lightness and sensitivity yet develops a convincing weight. Árpád Joó in his Hungaroton version with the Hungarian State Orchestra provide a seamless and dramatic development throughout the orchestral introduction.

In the scene of the ‘Children’s Games and Children’s Chorus’ Ferencsik’s colourful woodwind accompany the joyous and playful children’s choir joined by the full-bodied mixed chorus. The children’s chorus in the Joó version is quaint and delightfully sung with the mixed choir powerful and highly impressive.

The highlight is the celebrated scene of the ‘Miracle of the Roses’, a minor masterpiece of sacred choral music. This is followed by the impressive duet between Ludwig and Elizabeth known as the scene of the ‘Prayer of Thanksgiving’. Ferencsik’s soloists, the baritone Sándor Sólyom-Nagy as Ludwig and soprano Éva Andor as Elizabeth provide hauntingly dramatic singing with robust orchestral accompaniment in this deeply expressive music. Joó also employs Sólyom-Nagy in his cast with the eminent operatic soprano Éva Marton as Elizabeth. Both singers are highly effective with singing of strength and reverential sincerity together with a chorus combining potency with nobility. However, I give Éva Andor’s outstanding and creamily eloquent interpretation my preference over Marton who despite a fine performance troubles me with her all too discernible vibrato.

The ‘Chorus and March of the Crusaders’ scene under Ferencsik is martial in quality and builds a most impressive power. Ferencsik’s chorus from 6:04 (CD1, track 14) has an exultant fervour. Joó’s interpretation is more robustly military and the layers of orchestral sound are a treat for the ears. The singing of Joó’s choir from 5:41 (CD2, track 4) has a majestic spirit.

In the ‘Chorus of the Poor’ Ferencsik’s forces are sublime and emotional whilst Joó’s choir is inspiring and humane in its spirit. In the scene ‘Elizabeth’s Death’ Ferencsik conveys dolorous and spiritual depth and in Joó’s performance one senses music-making of an encompassing humanity. The ‘Angel’s Chorus’ from Ferencsik is pious containing an other-worldly radiance while Joó imparts an Elysian quality.

Another highlight of the score is the Orchestral Interlude, a prelude to the final section, which is a repetition of the principal motifs. Ferencsik and his Slovak players provide powerfully passionate playing and while the orchestral playing of Joó’s Hungarian State Orchestra is dignified but without the Ferencsik’s power.

In recent years probably the best known recording of St. Elizabeth is that from Joó. His full cast are Eva Farkas (mezzo); Sándor Sólyom-Nagy (baritone); József Gregor (bass); István Gáti (baritone); Kolos Kováts (bass); Éva Marton (soprano); Hungarian Army Male Chorus; Budapest Chorus; Nyíregyháza Children's Chorus and the Hungarian State Orchestra. His digital recording was made in Budapest in 1984 with a vivid and well balanced sound quality. It’s on a three disc set: Hungaroton Classic HCD 12694-96. I notice that the booklet notes from Ferencsik’s reissued two disc analogue set uses an abridged version of those used in the three disc set from Joó. Although all the necessary information is present the annotation on both the Hungaroton sets is not without mistakes and is confusingly laid out making it difficult to find ones way around the score. I am pleased to report that full texts and a comprehensive essay in English translations are provided.

Another version of St. Elizabeth that may be encountered is that conducted by Siegfried Heinrich with members of the Frankfurt and Marburg Concert Chorus; Hersfeld Festival Chorus and the Warsaw Radio Symphony Orchestra with Maria Szechowska (soprano); Doreen Millmann (mezzo); István Bercewy (bass) and Klaus Lapins (baritone). Heinrich’s performance was recorded in 1983 and released on Koch Schwann 3-1291-2.

This Hungaroton reissue from Ferencsik is remarkable and fully deserves its return to the catalogue. Recorded in 1973 at Bratislava the AAD sound quality is impressive for its age and is clear and well balanced.

Michael Cookson


AFranz Liszt (Volume 2), ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’ by Alan Walker
Publisher: Cornell University Press (1997) ISBN 0-8014-8453-7.
BOxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic Period’ by Edward Dannreuther
Publisher: Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905).
Note:

As part of the International Music Score Library Project, Wikipedia (the free on-line encyclopedia) hold a detailed and helpful ‘List of Compositions by Franz Liszt’ that evidently contains additions to Searle’s 1966 list made by Sharon Winklhofer and Leslie Howard. In two sections the list of Searle numbers (S) run from S.1-S.350 and S.351-S.999. Although not definitive this list proves to be valuable tool for Lisztians




 


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