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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
St. Elisabeth (The Legend of Saint Elisabeth), oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, S.2 (1857-62)
Melanie Diener - Elizabeth, his fiancée, later his wife (soprano)
Dagmar Pecková - Countess Sophie, his wife (mezzo)
Mario Hoff - Landgrave Ludwig, their son (baritone)
Renatus Mészár - Hermann, Landgrave of Thüringen (bass)
Alexander Günther - Frederick II of Hohenstaufen; Hungarian magnate and the Seneschall (bass)
Dennis Palsa - the child Ludwig
Klara Fröhlich - the child Elizabeth
Solisten des MDR Kinderchores/Gunter Berger (Einstudierung)
The Choir of the Goethe Gymnasium in Weimar/Mathias Rößler (Einstudierung)
Hungarian Radio Chorus/Kálmán Strausz (Einstudierung)
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair
rec. 8-9 July 2007, live, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany.
Full English translation of texts and essay included.
CPO 777339-2 [66:11 + 67:22]

Thankfully St. Elizabeth is gaining significant recognition in the catalogues. This is the third excellent set that I have received for review in the last year. Also available are a group of fine recordings of Liszt’s oratorio Christus.
Biographer Rich DiSilvio holds the view that Liszt was, “one of the most awe-inspiring figures in all of music history.” Although best known as the greatest virtuoso pianist of all-time, Liszt’s genius extended far beyond piano keys. He was also a major influence as a progressive composer who according to biographer Cecil Gray created, “some of the greatest and most original masterpieces of the nineteenth century.” A highly prolific and versatile composer, Liszt produced around a thousand works covering most genres including an opera1. Although about half of Liszt’s enormous oeuvre are piano compositions with over ninety scores written for choral forces; including around seventy sacred choral works. This significant number of sacred choral works is in keeping with the fact that the Abbé Liszt was a deeply religious man who joined the Franciscan order in 1865, receiving the tonsure and four minor orders of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Liszt was inspired to compose his oratorio St. Elizabeth from around as early as 1854 by the creation of a series of frescoes by the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind situated in the rooms of Wartburg castle, in Eisenach, near Weimar. The Wartburg frescoes depict episodes in the life of Saint Elizabeth.
For information I have compiled a brief scenario to St. Elizabeth: Elizabeth was born in 1207, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and 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 providing considerable 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 supplying 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 herself. Elizabeth dedicated the remainder of her short life to God and died in 1231. Elizabeth was canonized four years later by Pope Gregory IX.
For his oratorio St. Elizabeth Liszt’s partner Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein made literary sketches from the principal events in the life of Saint Elizabeth prior to Liszt commissioning 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 episodes in the life of the Hungarian Princess Elizabeth the oratorio is cast in six scenes and divided into two parts. I have composed a programme as follows:
Part 1
Orchestral Introduction, Andante Moderato
1) The arrival of Elizabeth at the Wartburg.
a) The welcome by the people and Landgrave Hermann.
b) Address of the Hungarian magnate.
c) Landgrave Hermann’s response.
d) First meeting between Ludwig and Elizabeth
e) Children’s games and children’s chorus.
2) Landgrave Ludwig.
a) Hunting song.
b) Ludwig encounters Elizabeth.
c) Miracle of the Roses.
d) Thanksgiving prayer: Duet between Ludwig and Elizabeth, assisted by the chorus.
3) The Crusaders.
a) Chorus of Crusaders.
b) Recitative of Landgrave Ludwig.
c) Ludwig bids farewell to Elizabeth.
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 from the Wartburg.
d) Storm.
5) Elizabeth.
a) Prayer.
b) Dream and Memories of Home.
c) Chorus of the Poor -Voices and Deeds of Charity.
d) Elizabeth’s Death.
e) The Angel’s Chorus.
6) Solemn burial of Elizabeth.
a) Orchestral Interlude - Repetition of the main themes.
b) Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.
c) Funeral-Chorus of the Poor and of the People.
d) Crusaders Procession.
e) Church Chorus. Hungarian and German Bishops.
Liszt conducted the premičre of St. Elizabeth, 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 Liszt gave another performance this time at his adopted home town of Weimar. Biographer Alan Walker2 explains how Liszt, who had only recently taken minor holy orders, gave the Pest premičre wearing the cassock of a Franciscan monk. There was another notable performance of St. Elizabeth given in the presence of Liszt that was conducted by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and sung in English at the St. James’s Hall, London in 1886. According to music writer Edward Dannreuther3 early performances that Liszt produced of St. Elizabeth were in the form of an opera sacra (sacred opera).
For this CPO version I have compared several highlights of the score with two alternative versions:
a) János Ferencsik’s 1973 Bratislava analogue recording on Hungaroton Classics.
b) Árpád Joó’s 1984 Budapest digital recording also on Hungaroton Classics.
In the extended Orchestral Introduction marked andante moderato St. Clair and his orchestra give a superbly shaped reading containing gossamer light textures that develop with vigour and purpose. The interpretation from Ferencsik has lightness and sensitivity built with convincing weight. Joó provides a seamless and dramatic development throughout the orchestral introduction.
In the scene of the ‘Children’s Games and Children’s Chorus’ St. Clair and his children’s chorus provide delightfully infectious singing supported by especially convincing string playing. Ferencsik’s colourful woodwind accompany his joyous and playful children’s choir joined by the full-bodied mixed chorus. The children’s chorus in the Joó version is quaint and pleasurably performed contrasting with the powerful and highly impressive mixed choir.
The highlight is the celebrated scene ‘Miracle of the Roses’, a minor masterpiece of sacred choral music, followed by the impressive duet between Ludwig and Elizabeth known as the scene of the ‘Prayer of Thanksgiving’.
St. Clair’s soloists, the baritone Mario Huff as Ludwig and the charming and radiant soprano Melanie Diener as Elizabeth are in splendid voice providing convincing characterisation. St. Clair’s impeccable orchestral support is of the utmost quality. Ferencsik’s soloists, the baritone Sándor Sólyom-Nagy as Ludwig and soprano Éva Andor as Elizabeth offer hauntingly dramatic singing with robust orchestral accompaniment in this deeply expressive music. Joó also employs the talented baritone Sándor Sólyom-Nagy in his cast together with the eminent operatic soprano Éva Marton as Elizabeth. Both Sólyom-Nagy and Marton are highly effective, with a performance of strength and reverential sincerity assisted by a chorus of potency combined with nobility. However, I give Éva Andor’s outstanding interpretation of creamy eloquence my preference over the lighter tones of Diener and Marton who with her discernible vibrato, and despite a fine performance, left me less at ease.
In the scene ‘Chorus and March of the Crusaders’ St. Clair provides a vigorous and stormy orchestral reading that is highly successful, accompanied by his admirable chorus marked by colour and character. The Ferencsik interpretation has a martial quality of most impressive weight and power. Ferencsik’s chorus from 6:04 (CD1, track 14) provides an exultant fervour. Joó’s interpretation is more robustly martial and the layers of orchestral sound are a treat. I found the singing of Joó’s choir from 5:41 (CD2, track 4) contained a majestic spirit.
St. Clair and his Staatskapelle Weimar communicate impeccable orchestral playing in the introduction to the ‘Chorus of the Poor’. The chorus are persuasive providing a strong sense of humility and purity of supplication. János Ferencsik’s forces are sublime and emotional in the ‘Chorus of the Poor’ whilst Árpád Joó’s choir is inspiring, communicating humane strains.
In the scene ‘Elizabeth’s Death’ the performance of Carl St. Clair’s soprano Melanie Diener as Elizabeth overflows with a devout and profound feeling for eternal rest. János Ferencsik’s reading in the scene ‘Elizabeth’s Death’ conveys a dolorous and spiritual depth with an impressive contribution from Éva Andor as Elizabeth. In Árpád Joó’s interpretation of ‘Elizabeth’s Death’ one senses music making of an encompassing humanity with star soprano Éva Marton as Elizabeth in excellent voice.
Carl St. Clair’s choir in the ‘Angel’s Chorus’ engage in a rapturous atmosphere of supplication. The choral forces of János Ferencsik in the ‘Angel’s Chorus’ are markedly pious containing a sense of an other-worldly radiance and I experienced Árpád Joó chorus as imparting a performance permeated with an Elysian quality.
Another of the many highlights of the score is the Orchestral Interlude, a prelude to the final section the ‘Solemn burial of Elizabeth’; which serves as a repetition of the principal motifs employed in the score. I found the highly assured performance of Carl St. Clair and the Staatskapelle Weimar to be colourful and dramatic. János Ferencsik and his Slovak Philharmonic players provide powerfully passionate playing in the Orchestral Interlude and Árpád Joó’s Hungarian State Orchestra communicate playing that is dignified but without the power of János Ferencsik’s reading.
My main recommendation in Liszt’s oratorio St. Elizabeth is the indispensable 1973 Bratislava version from the esteemed Hungarian-born conductor János Ferencsik reissued in 2007 on Hungaroton (see review). Ferencsik’s performers comprise a fine cast of soloists, the Slovak Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and the Bratislava Radio Children’s Chorus. This is a remarkable performance of power and reverence from Ferencsik that fully deserves its return to the catalogues. The 1973 analogue sound quality is impressive for its age and is clear and well balanced on a double set including full English translation of texts and essay: Hungaroton Classics HCD 11650-51.
I would rank alongside the live version from Carl St. Clair/Staatskapelle Weimar on CPO is the splendid recording from Hungarian conductor Árpád Joó on Hungaroton who directs an interpretation of humanity and eloquence. Joó’s cast of soloists includes the world famous soprano Éva Marton together with the Hungarian Army Male Chorus; Budapest Chorus; Nyíregyháza Children's Chorus and the Hungarian State Orchestra. Joó’s digital recording was recorded in Budapest in 1984 with a vivid and well balanced sound quality on a three disc set with essay and full texts in English translations from Hungaroton Classics HCD 12694-96.
Another version of St. Elizabeth that may be encountered but not one that I am familiar with is that conducted by Siegfried Heinrich with members of the Frankfurt and Marburg Concert Chorus; Hersfeld Festival Chorus and the Warsaw Radio Symphony Orchestra. The cast of soloists are Maria Szechowska (soprano); Doreen Millmann (mezzo-soprano); István Bercewy (bass) and Klaus Lapins (baritone). Heinrich’s performance was recorded in 1983 and released on Koch Schwann 3-1291-2.
This CPO release of the oratorio St. Elizabeth from conductor Carl St. Clair was recorded live in July 2007 at the Weimarhalle in Weimar; Liszt’s home town for many years. The CPO engineers have provided an impressive and well balanced sound quality, and there is no discernable audience noise or applause. The double set contains English texts and an informative essay; although the track listing page is provided in German only. I loved the most appropriate cover photograph of Moritz von Schwind’s Das Rosenwunder der hl. Elisabeth; one of his frescos in Wartburg Castle.
This is not my first choice version of St. Elizabeth but is nevertheless a splendidly performed and recorded double set from Carl St. Clair on CPO. A recording that deserves to be part of any Liszt collection.
Michael Cookson
1. As part of the International Music Score Library Project, Wikipedia (the free on-line encyclopedia) holds a detailed and helpful ‘List of Compositions by Franz Liszt’, with dates, 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 a valuable tool for Lisztians:
2. Franz Liszt (Volume 2), ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’ by Alan Walker
Publisher: Cornell University Press (1997) ISBN 0-8014-8453-7.
3. Oxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic Period’ by Edward Dannreuther
Publisher: Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905).
Liszt’s letters:
Some 260 of Liszt’s letters are available online in English translations.


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