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Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Christus, S.3 (1866) [173.13]
Benita Valente (sop); Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo); Peter Lindroos (ten); Tom Krause (bar);Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/James Conlon Recorded in De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 20 September 1985 ADD Notes in English, Français, Deutsch. Latin text, no translations.
WARNER APEX 2564 61167-2 [3 CD: 173.13]

Comparison recordings;
Forrai, Hungarian State Orchestra Hungaroton HRC 184/5/6
Dorati, Hungarian State Orchestra Hungaroton HCD 12831-33-2
Rilling, Stuttgart RSO Hänssler Classics 98121
[same] Brilliant Classics
[same] Musical Heritage Society 535948X [North America only]
E. Nyíregyházi, piano: March of the 3 Holy Kings from Christus CBS LP M2 34598

I am delighted to have this fine recording back in the catalogue; in some ways it’s the finest version of the work ever done. I had always been under the impression that this was a digital recording because the cassette version has “Numérique” on the box, but apparently it is an analogue live recording that has been digitally cleaned up and edited and digitally mastered to tape cassette. Only the Dorati and Rilling performances are truly digital.

In 1847 Liszt published a set of orchestral tone poems which were based on poetry and drama. They were brilliant, colourful orchestral showpieces, written in a style derived to a degree not yet generally appreciated from Rossinian operatic interludes and overtures, which in turn leaned a bit on Beethoven Overtures and Symphonies. In 1866 Liszt compiled an oratorio Christus from materials, some begun 13 years earlier, utilising chorale settings of Latin Catholic devotional poems, interspersing them with another kind of tone poem. These tone poems were, like the previous ones, about 15 to 20 minutes long each, and were based on extra-musical subjects. But where the previous set was generally loud and full of storm and stress, battle and victory, these new ones were more reflective, even calm, at times brilliant, at times meditative, yet scored for full orchestra. At some moments we hear Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, at others Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, and even a hint of Liszt’s own Les Préludes. These reflective tone poems feature a similar postponed resolution of chords, a similar drawn out anguish to that featured in Wagner’s Tristan, and although nobody would play Christus, they would use the music to embarrass Wagner, to accuse him of plagiarism. A few late 19th Century French composers wrote religious works clearly influenced by Christus, and indeed it was a French Catholic acquaintance who had studied the work in score who was most particularly gratified when the first recording finally appeared.

I have previously commented on both Handel’s and Liszt’s intentions in writing about their Christian saviour, and brought upon myself some sharp rebuke when I suggested that Handel—like Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Mahler, and Slonimsky, a baptised Christian—may have harboured personal Jewish sympathies from his tradesmen ancestors and expressed them in his oratorio, whose texts were drawn almost entirely from the Old Testament and which he entitled in Hebrew. Even our local Rabbi was a little surprised at my suggestion, offering the thought that Jews had traditionally held Messiah to be expressive exclusively of Christiandom. It may be that I am exaggerating, and that British Israelism as it came to be called was much stronger in the mid 18th century than I had expected, that Handel’s audience had more of a personal identification with Jewish history and culture than I had supposed, and that Handel was just responding to the tastes of his audience. Whatever, this Protestant oratorio sung in a heathen vernacular with its heavily Old Testament textual bias, while immediately popular the world over—even in Catholic Vienna—hardly pleased conservative Catholic religious tastes.

Liszt’s remedy was obvious. Titled in Latin and with all Latin texts including prime religious verses such as the Stabat Mater Speciosa, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, and Pater Noster, his new work was aimed directly at Catholic sentiment. Despite the obvious parallel with Handel, Liszt also admitted that he was influenced by Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. However, Christus was hardly suitable for any liturgical use, was difficult to perform, and understandably lacked of popularity in Protestant countries. After a few performances in Germany — Anton Bruckner played the organ part in one of them — the work was set on a course to oblivion. This was unfortunate because if Liszt had had the chance to conduct it a dozen times for various audiences he would surely have made revisions; the work as it stands has moments, even whole sections, which “don’t work” as well as they could. Hence a conductor has to work now and then to correct balances and smooth out awkward transitions. A few sections from the work were arranged for piano solo but their performance seemed to do nothing to arouse curiosity about the whole work until the middle of the 20th Century when Liszt’s music as a whole was being re-evaluated. Liszt’s choral music was very late of discovery and appreciation, and the first recording of Christus was made in 1971 (a good one, conducted by Miklós Forrai, is still in print).

The Forrai and Conlon versions record the Latin superscriptions in the score, Forrai before and Conlon at times during the music, while Dorati and Rilling omit them. Dorati and Forrai are studio recordings, while Rilling and Conlon are recorded live performances and thus, not surprisingly, convey the best sense of the music being performed rather than expounded. The audiences in both cases observe the highest standard of silent appreciation.

For all its occasional slight awkwardness the Forrai performance still has some of the excitement of discovery; the performers know that most people who hear this recording will never have heard the music before and their enthusiasm is infectious, as on a number of the best Hungaroton recordings. Both the Hungarian performances are the most reverent, and both have a slight tendency to ponderousness at times. Dorati has the warmest, most distant and reverberant sound with soloists in front of the orchestra and chorus. He is evidently embarrassed by the percussion accents in the finale, and he softens them to the point of inaudibility. Rilling has the closest, most detailed sound and the clean, clear strings, winds and chorus that come from digital recording. At times he seems to try to find a Baroque aesthetic in this music, which may at times be there; his chorus excels in the vigorous contrapuntal sections, but his rapid tempo causes the church bells in the finale to come absurdly too close together. Conlon has a good balance of clarity and breadth to the sound, with a string and chorus sound that is very clear and clean for analogue recording. His tempi are always well chosen and his dramatics are well shaped, with audience applause at the end.

The Conlon performance was at one time my preferred version of this work, but since that time the Rilling recording has been issued. Certainly the soloists and choruses are equally good, the interpretations equally valid and committed; but, if held at gun-point and forced to choose, I would give just the slightest of nods to Rilling based on slightly more secure orchestral playing here and there, and the translation in the booklet, even though I miss the spoken superscriptions as on the Conlon. Probably most listeners today will prefer the close sound and upbeat vigour of Rilling’s performance.

Paul Shoemaker

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