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Franz LISZT (1811-1886) St. Elisabeth (The Legend of Saint
Elisabeth), oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra,
- 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
Thankfully St. Elizabeth is gaining significant
recognition in the catalogues. This is the third excellent set that
received for review in the last year. Also available are a group
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.
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.
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:
Liszt (Volume 2), ‘The Final Years 1861-1886’ by Alan
Publisher: Cornell University Press (1997) ISBN 0-8014-8453-7.
3. Oxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic
Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905).
letters: Some 260 of Liszt’s letters
are available online in English translations.
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