I first knew Liszt's Via Crucis from a 1961 Saga stereo
LP (XID5079) by the BBC Northern Singers under Gordon Thorne
with organist Francis Jackson. I can't say that I remember it
in detail, but certainly the extraordinary sound of this music
– often very advanced for its time - has stayed with me ever
since. Anyone who doesn't already know Via Crucis, but
who is familiar with the experimental harmony and strange,
bleak character of Liszt's late piano works, will be stirred
by this representation of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross.
Via Crucis is one of the most moving of all Liszt's
compositions, yet it seems to be rarely performed. When he offered
it for publication, it was considered so “new” that it was rejected.
As Derek Watson has tellingly written (Master Musicians, Dent
1989), “A decade or so earlier it would have been unthinkable
for a publisher to reject a manuscript by Liszt.” The work was
not performed until 1929 and not published until six years later.
Its text, compiled by Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, includes
Biblical quotations, Latin hymns and German chorales. The organ,
which may be replaced - less effectively - by piano or harmonium,
has a very important role which extends to four unaccompanied
The musical language is predominantly restrained and spare –
a million miles from the Liszt of the operatic transcriptions
– but also incorporates moments of understated drama, as in
No. 7 – Jesus falls for the second time - or No. 11 –
Jesus dies on the cross. Liszt evokes the tragedy and
weariness of his subject with admirable economy. As for this
performance, it is outstanding. The choir is unanimous in attack,
wonderful in tone, and secure in intonation. Listen to No. 6
(Liszt's harmonisation of the chorale O sacred head sore
wounded) or No. 12 (Jesus dies on the cross) for
their marvellous expressive range. The occasional solos are
The other tracks are devoted to organ works – or rather, Liszt's
arrangements of the original piano version of the variations,
and of the first of three funeral odes, originally composed
in 1866 for orchestra or solo piano. The odes were prompted
by the death of Liszt's son Daniel aged 20. The Weinen, Klagen
Variations began as a brief prelude written in 1859, based
on the chromatic bass from the opening chorus of Bach's Cantata
No. 12. After the death of the composer's daughter Blondine
in 1862, Liszt massively expanded it into a set of 30 variations.
Both works receive compelling performances.
The recording venue was appropriately Riga Cathedral (a surprisingly
long time ago), and the balance is fine.
My copy is devoid of liner-notes, artists' pictures or recording
details of any kind. This CD is being released in different
formats or presentations, so I wish everyone better luck.
Otherwise this is a strongly commended release – an excellent
performance of a major work which ranked high among neglected
Liszt compositions due for more exposure in this centenary year.
review by Paul Shoemaker [note: the limited edition is no
longer on offer]