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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Christus, oratorium nach lateinischen Texten aus der heiligen Schrift und der katholischen Liturgie, für Soli, Chor, und Orchester, S.3 (1873) [161.51]
Henriette Bonde-Hansen, soprano; Iris Vermillion, mezzo soprano/alto;
Michael Schade, tenor; Andreas Schmidt, bass
Gächinger Kantorei, Stuttgart; Krakauer Kammerchor
Radio-Sinfonieochester Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
Recorded Beethovensaal Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany, February 1997
Notes in English. Latin text and parallel German translation.
Also available: Hänssler Classics 98121 full price; MHS 535984X, North America
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99951 [3CDs: 161.51]

Comparison recordings:
Miklos Forrai, soloists, chorus, Hungarian State Orchestra Hungaroton HRC 184/5/6
James Conlon, soloists, chorus, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Erato ECD 88231
Antal Dorati, soloists, chorus, Hungarian State Orchestra Hungaroton HCD 12831/2/3

The beginning of the story of this work lies in 1742. Georg Friedrich Händel (the name means ‘merchant, trader’), naturalised a British subject had in his youth set to music Catholic Christian texts. Having officially accepted the Protestant Christian faith of his patrons he essays to write a Christian oratorio. He doesn’t write the text, but has a friend assemble it for him. This text is remarkable in several matters; 1) The title is a single Hebrew word. 2) most of the text is from the Old Testament. 3) The word ‘Jesus’ occurs in it only once in a place where it could easily be cut out or replaced. 4) All actual references to ‘The Messiah’ could easily be appreciated in the future conditional tense even when they come from New Testament sources. 5) By tradition and by Handel’s own testimony, the most personal and best piece of music in the whole work is the Halleluja (another Hebrew word) Chorus. What is most puzzling to me is why this work is not played as much in synagogues as it is in Christian Churches. Maybe it is and the rest of us just don’t know it.

But even as the work swept around the world to astronomical popularity, European Catholics could hardly be in any doubt as to what was going on here. Completely ignored was 1300 years of Catholic European religious musical tradition.

It was just over 100 years later when Franciscus ‘Franzi’ Liszt, candidate for the Catholic priesthood, decided to do something about it. Whether anybody was prepared to say he was as great a composer as Handel or not, he certainly felt equal to his task, and he was. He had learned vocal drama from the operas of Rossini, and counterpoint from the works of Bach. Whether it was Wagner or Liszt who originally thought it all up, between the two of them they were teaching the world a lot about musical drama. Liszt’s previous religious works, his Ave Marias, his masses and the Via Crucis, had given him some practice. His text, selected after much consultation with poets and friends, including his mistress Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein, was all in Latin. There is not a single sentence from the Old Testament and no Hebrew until we come to the very last line where both hosanna and halleluja appear. There are some quotations from the Vulgate versions of St. Luke and St. Matthew, but a major part of the work is the Stabat Mater Speciosa set for women’s chorus and Stabat Mater Dolorosa set as a quasi-operatic ensemble. The Pater Noster text is included but, curiously, not the Ave Maria. Certainly included is Matthew 16, 18, ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church...’ Catholic sensibilities have been championed, and vindicated.

The work was performed in pieces, finally in its entirety in 1873, but fell out of favour. Thus Liszt failed to replace or even achieve comparison with the earlier work by Handel. It was not until 25 years after the composer’s death that anyone began to take it seriously, and the first recording was not made until 1971. Since then, there have been three more recordings, of which this is the most recent.

Dorati generally uses reverent, slow, steady tempi, for example as in the Stabat Mater Speciosa where he very skilfully sustains throughout an intense mood of hushed expectant mysticism. But Dorati’s taking all the repeats and his slow tempo for the March of the Three Holy Kings dissipates all this built-up tension. Rilling’s faster and more flexible tempo in the March is much more effective, whereas in the earlier sections Rilling seems almost rushed. Forrai [ADD] has the same orchestra as Dorati. His tempi are bright, the music is well shaped, the climaxes exciting, and the analogue sound is fine. However at times one senses an imprecision, a slight lack of incisiveness, a lightening of concentration. There is also a slight echo in the stereo perspective. Forrai’s is the only recording which has a baritone declaim the printed Latin superscriptions of the various sections. Other conductors omit them and, like the texts on the score of the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica, they are probably best left in the program booklet. Liszt is not around for us to ask what he meant us to do.

If you want one good recording, for the money, this Rilling version cannot be beaten. The Forrai recording, sometimes available at a bargain price, is also worth considering. If you must have the very best, you will want the Dorati recording; but be warned that his is a slow, churchy, at times almost ponderous approach. Admittedly this makes the rapid brilliant sections all the more exciting. If you want them all, as I do, you will never tire of hearing this magnificent work done various ways. The Conlon is a live performance and has its own kind of excitement, but so far as I know it has been out of print and unavailable for many years. That is a shame because there are beauties there that are not found elsewhere. And to complete the Christus experience one must hear Ervin Nyiregyházi play his extraordinary piano transcription of the March of the Three Holy Kings, once available on LP and worth looking up.

We started in the 18th century with Handel, and we conclude in the 20th century with a work directly inspired by Christus, the Mahler Symphony #8, ‘..of a Thousand.’ This three hundred year interplay of three major religions and three great composers is just one example of why music is such an endlessly fascinating study.

Paul Shoemaker

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