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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Christus oratorio for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ, S.3 (1855-67)
Franziska Hirzel (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (alto)
Donald Kaasch (tenor)
Ralf Lukas (baritone)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Beethoven Orchestra Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. 17-19, 21-23 March 2005, Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bad Godesberg, Germany
Digital hybrid multi-channel, SACD
Texts in Latin and German only.
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG GOLD 937 1366-6 [3 CDs: 65:56 + 51:00 + 55:22] 

 



A man is in reality worth only what he is considered to be in the eyes of God!” Liszt

One immediately notices that this version of Christus on MDG disappointingly lacks English texts. This omission made the score extremely difficult to follow and detracted considerably from my enjoyment and understanding of the score. If booklet space was the issue I would have swapped the rather workaday essay in favour of a synopsis and an English translation of the text. The rival account from Helmuth Rilling on Brilliant Classics is only a marginal improvement as it contains a synopsis in English but only Latin and German texts. I do not know whether Helmuth Rilling’s release of the same performance on Hänssler Classics [footnote] or Antal Dorati’s account on Hungaroton contain English translations. A helpful source of assistance in understanding the proceedings of Christus is Alan Walker’s biography of Liszt, volume 3 ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’.A

Liszt’s first oratorio Saint Elizabeth (Legend of Saint Elizabeth), S.2 was written between 1857 and 1862. As early as 1853 he was planning his second oratorio, Christus; a work based on the conventional scenario of Christ’s life. A deeply religious man Liszt joined the Franciscan order in 1865, receiving the tonsure and four minor orders of the Catholic priesthood. The Abbé Liszt composed the massive fourteen movement score to Christus between 1855 and 1867. Some of it was written at the Madonna del Rosario monastery in Rome. Alan Walker wrote that, “No other composition cost him nearly so much labour or was composed over such a long period of time.”A Musicologist Edward Dannreuther was greatly impressed with Christus describing the score as, “the largest and most sustained of Liszt’s efforts, and the magnum opus of his later years.”B

Various parts of Christus had been performed over a number of years; serving as previews of the completed oratorio. For example The Beatitudes was conducted in 1859 at Weimar; Giovanni Sgambati conducted Part 1, The Christmas Oratorio in Rome in 1867 and Anton Rubinstein conducted The Christmas Oratorio in Vienna in 1871 with eminent support from Anton Bruckner playing the organ.

After the publication of Christus by Julius Schuberth in 1872, Liszt took the podium himself at the première with reportedly three hundred performers. It was given to a capacity audience in the Protestant Herder Church in Weimar in 1873. For this performance Liszt made a number of extensive cuts. It seems that the sum of the considerable abridgements, some 800 measures, is equal to the length of some of his symphonic poems. A sensation was caused by the attendance at the Weimar church of Richard and Cosima Wagner; the occasion of Wagner’s first public meeting with Liszt since their well publicised breakdown in relations.

Steeped in Roman Catholic devotional spirit and liturgy the style of Christus ranges from Gregorian plain-chant to high Romantic orchestral colour. Although regarded by some commentators as rather inconsistent in quality one cannot doubt the sincerity and forward-thinking of the inspiration. Sadly the work suffered from the forceful and enduring backlash against things perceived as Germanic and Victorian that prevailed in Britain following the outbreak of the Great War. This coupled with the general decline in the choral tradition has meant that Christus has virtually disappeared from the repertoire.

A performance of Christus can take around three hours and requires massive orchestral forces, including extra percussion, harp and organ, with as many as six vocal soloists and a large mixed chorus. Aside from being part of an unfashionable genre the economics and logistics of the massive forces required are major factors telling against performances.

Liszt headed the score with the following quotation from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, Chapter 4.15:

Veritatem autem facientes in caritate crescamus in illo per omnia qui est caput Christus (But speaking the truth in charity/love, may we grow up into him in all things, who is the head, the Christ).

Cast in three substantial parts the score represents the main phases of the life of Christ:

Part 1) Christmas Oratorio (Representing Christ’s birth)
I. Introduction
II. The pastorale and annunciation of the angels
III. Stabat Mater speciosa (The beautiful Mother stood), hymn
IV. Song of the shepherds at the manger
V. The three holy kings, march

Part 2) After Epiphany (The principal events in Christ’s life)
VI. The Beatitudes
VII. The Lord's prayer: Pater nosta
VIII. The foundation of the church
IX. The miracle
X. The entry into Jerusalem

Part 3) Passion and Resurrection (Devoted to Christ’s passion and resurrection)
XI. Tristis est anima mea (Sorrowful is my soul)
XII. Stabat Mater dolorosa (The grieving Mother stood)
XIII. O filii et filiae (O, sons and daughters), Easter hymn
XIV. Resurrexit! (He has risen!)

The Introduction to Part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio comprises two rather overlong orchestral passages that are full of simple and appealing melodies portraying the Nativity. In the opening Andante sostenuto we hear slow orchestral music suffused with plainchant style. Increasing in intensity the music seems to represent the expectancy of Advent developing towards the bright new dawn associated with the coming of the Saviour. The lengthy Allegretto moderato has a predominance of woodwind which imparts both a rustic character and a relaxing chamber quality.

In the Pastorale and Annunciation of the Angels the opening passage is superbly sung by the soprano Franziska Hirzel and from 3:25 (track 3, CD1) the tenor Donald Kaasch communicates freshness and sensitivity. I enjoyed the excellent violin solo from point 7:20-8.29 that concludes the section. The extended hymn Stabat Mater speciosa (The beautiful Mother stood) contains music that grows dramatically. The organ and percussion added to the splendid Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno make colourful accompaniment.

The instrumental section Hirtengesang an der Krippe (Song of the shepherds at the manger) is dominated by reedy woodwind, providing a convincing bucolic feel that pervades the movement. From 1:38 (track 5, CD1) the strings take centre-stage interspersed with woodwind contributions. The lengthy instrumental Quasi Andante, pastoral section has a character comparable to the preceding Hirtengesang and is just as expertly performed by the Bonn players.

In the writing of Die heiligen drei Könige (The three holy kings) a march, Liszt was, according to Dannreuther, inspired by the magnificence of Cologne Cathedral.B There is a distinctly Hungarian character to the march and one notices the prominent role of the woodwind. Marking a change of mood the following Adagio sostenuto is a moving slow movement for orchestra. From 5:01 (track 8, CD1) one notices the music growing in intensity and the brass and percussion brings the first part of Christus to an end on a jubilant note.

In Part 2, After Epiphany the opening movement Die Seligpreisungen. Andante, Beati Pauperes Spiritu’ is a marvellous creation known as the Beatitudes. Baritone Ralf Lukas blends beautifully with the celestial choir and organ; stunning and affecting music. The section closes with a convincingly moving pianissimo. The Lord's Prayer: Pater nosta, Andante pietoso section for choir and organ, another highlight, is interpreted with a satisfying blend of reverence and drama. 

The expressive and melodic nature of the Foundation of the Church, Andante maestoso assai for choir and orchestra makes a significant impact here expertly sung by the Brno choir. The Miracle, marked Agitato comes across as a convincing forward-looking evocation of riding through the tempestuous waves and violent winds; a great storm followed by nervous calm. Part two of Christus ends with the Entry into Jerusalem, marked Allegro moderato. This pageant-like, jubilant music develops characteristically into a more serious vein with the entry of impressive alto Birgit Remmert at 4:51-7:12 (track 5, CD2). A splendid and highly dramatic choral and orchestral climax.

Part 3, the Passion and Resurrection opens with the movement Tristis est anima mea (Sorrowful is my soul). This sevres as Liszt’s personal affirmation of pain and anguish for Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is sympathetically and devoutly put across by baritone Ralf Lukas and the Bonn orchestra.

One of the main highlights is the Stabat Mater dolorosa (The grieving Mother stood). It is described by Alan Walker as, “monumental …Liszt was truly inspired when he penned this movement, which offers some of the best choral writing to come out of the nineteenth century.”A Lasting around forty-four minutes this colossal episode is designed in seven sections for the soloists, chorus and orchestra and could easily serve as a standalone score. Kofman delivers a particularly magisterial reading of the Fac me cruce custoridi section (track 7, CD3).

Providing a calming contrast after the Stabat Mater dolorosa the short Easter hymn O filii et filiae (O, sons and daughters) is presented here by female choir with harmonium accompaniment. The movement is successfully communicated as a pious prayer with the effect of being heard in the distance. Christus concludes with the movement Resurrexit! (He has risen!). Kofman closes the score with a massive brass-dominated triumphant fugue - a device that Liszt only rarely employed.

I played this SACD recorded in an evidently ecclesiastical acoustic on my standard units. I found the sonics warm and well-balanced but I would have welcomed a slightly sharper clarity. There are a handful of alternative recent recordings of Christus. I can highly recommend the version from choral specialist Helmuth Rilling conducting the Gächinger Kantorei, Stuttgart; Krakauer Kammerchor and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Rilling’s carefully chosen quartet of soloists are Henriette Bonde-Hansen (soprano); Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano); Michael Schade (tenor) and Andreas Schmidt (bass). The digital recording was taken down at the Beethovensaal Liederhalle, Stuttgart in 1997 and has the advantage over Kofman by virtue of a closer, brighter and more vivid sound quality in addition to an excellent balance. The Rilling is available on a three disc set on Brilliant Classics 99951 and the same performance is also to be had on Hänssler Classics 98121.

Another recording of Christus, although one that I am not too familiar with, is from Antal Dorati and the Hungarian State Orchestra with the Hungarian Radio and Television Chorus. Dorati’s team was: Sandor Solyom-Nagy (baritone); Veronika Kincses (soprano); Klara Takacs (mezzo-soprano); Janos B. Nagy (tenor) and László Polgár (bass). The digital recording from circa 1985 is on Hungaroton HCD 12831-33. I am also aware of versions from Miklós Forrai and the Hungarian State Orchestra on Hungaroton HRC 184/5/6 and also from conductor James Conlon with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on Warner Apex 2564 61167-2 (also available on Erato ECD 88231).

Liszt’s sacred choral legacy is well served by splendid recordings of Christus from Kofman and Rilling. It is hard to separate these two superbly performed versions. I will treasure both sets but if I had to select only one it would be that from Helmuth Rilling.

Michael Cookson

AFranz Liszt (Volume 3), ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’ by Alan Walker. Publisher: Cornell University Press (1997) ISBN 0-8014-8453-7. Pg. 255, 263.

BOxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic Period’ by Edward Dannreuther. Publisher: Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905). Pg. 209, 213.

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 a list on Wikipedia proves to be valuable tool for Lisztians.

 

Footnote

We have been informed by a reader that the Haenssler recording offers full text in English, German, French and Spanish.

 


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