Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:


Missa Choralis
Via Crucis

Elizabeth Atherton Soprano
Jane Bovell Soprano
Harriet Webb Mezzo-soprano
Jeanette Agar Contralto
John Bowley Tenor
Peter King Tenor
Leigh Melrose Baritone
Nicholas Warden Bass
Thomas Trotter Organ
Matthew Best Conductor
Hyperion CDA 67199
Crotchet  £11.99   Amazon UK  £11.99  AmazonUS  $17.97


Liszt's Missa Choralis was written in 1865 during the period he was resident in Rome and took holy orders. He spent much of this time following an almost monastic existence as guest of Cardinal Gustav Hohenlobe, and devoted himself to studying and composing church music - including the oratorios St Elizabeth and Christus. All of this was in stark contrast to his life in the 1830s and 1840s when he was constantly touring all parts of eastern and western Europe, enjoying a flamboyant, raffish, womanising lifestyle and revelling in the adulation of his besotted admirers. His apparently abrupt transition from the profane to the sacred puzzled many at the time and ever since. We should recall however that, after high public exposure as a child prodigy, he spent his adolescent years, following the death of his father in 1826,  in much religious reflection and reading. It was only in his 20s and 30s that he became fired up and embarked on the "outrageous" compositions and performances for which he is best remembered. We may conclude that Liszt's period as Kapellmeister at Weimar (1848-58) saw a re-awakening of his youthful religious preoccupations. Certainly his move to Rome occurred with a sense of mission: to restore mystical depths to church music and rescue it from the "operetta" style into which it seemed to have degenerated - hence his deep study of Palestrina. Set in this context, we can understand the pivotal importance of the Missa Choralis in Liszt's musical and psychological development.

Whatever his admiration for Palestrina, and his occasional incorporation of plainchant themes and use of mediaeval modal tonality, Liszt's music here is in no way derivative and contains no complex polyphony. Much of it is either unison or homophonic. It is essentially the simple expression of profound emotion, yet expressed in terms of wide ranging changes of tonality - sometimes abrupt and sometimes so skilfully subtle that the listener is unaware of just how bizarre a journey of modulation his ears are being taken through. The structure of the movements follows 18th century convention, in its reflecting the mood and sense of the text, and in the alternation of soloist ensemble and full chorus. The setting could thus be said to stand in line of descent from the tradition of Haydn and Mozart - but, importantly, with the "operatic" frills removed: there are no ornate melismata and no long instrumental ritornelli. The organ accompaniment, where used, is complementary and almost never heard on its own. The singing is thus a capella with organ support. The music is amply served by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best. This choir has a well-earned reputation for 19th and early 20th century choral music and its talents are ideally suited to this rendering of Liszt. Especially profound poignancy is achieved in the angst sections: Qui tollis in the Gloria and Crucifixus in the Credo.

Via Crucis also comes from Liszt's "religious" period, being composed in 1866. It illuminatingly shows how the mind of the creator of this music was all part of the same joined-up psyche as that of the composer of his most extravagant piano and orchestral works. It belongs to that favourite formula of Liszt: a sequence of short movements based on pictures or statues - in this case the Stations of the Cross - each one a miniature cameo of penetrating intensity. A range of texts and themes are used to illustrate the Station's devotions: Latin hymns (including lines from Vexilla regis, Stabat mater and Ave crux), Lutheran chorales (his own harmonisations - not the familiar ones of Bach), quotations from the Bible, and organ solos. With fifteen movements, lasting very few minutes each, the whole work's integrated consistency is achieved by much thematic and textual cross-referencing (as matches the narrative sequence) and by the repeated use of "The Cross" leitmotif - a rising sequence of just four notes - two tones and a minor third. These also form the very last notes, played pianissimo on the organ, of the whole work.

The Corydon Singers and soloists extract the poignant and mournful depths of the music in full measure. There is no catharsis here, no sneakily anticipating the resurrection; it is profound pathos and anguish throughout. It is not for everyday listening - or indeed for recreational concert hall performance at all. Perhaps this disc should come with a warning label directed at potential listeners with depressive or suicidal tendencies? Certainly intense concentrated listening does induce morbid introspection of the darker regions of the soul. On the other hand, if given less close attention, the listener risks becoming merely bored. This may go some way to explain why the work was rejected for publication at the time of its composition and was never heard in Liszt's lifetime - or indeed until 1926.

This disc will not be everybody's cup of tea. However the quality and authenticity of the performance makes it especially valuable for those who wish to enrich their understanding of this key phase in the evolution of 19th century choral music. These are certainly works of a rare genius, combining (as they do) without inconsistency the ancient traditions of plainchant with the mould-breaking iconoclasm of mid-19th century romanticism.

Humphrey Smith


Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store
Musicians accessories
Click here to visit