Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Via crucis, S53 (1879)
BBC Northern Singers/Francis Jackson
Gordon Thorne (organ)
JADE 6997402 [37.36]
Liszt’s Via crucis is a real curiosity dating from late in the composer’s career. It is cut from much the same cloth as his sprawling but magnificent oratorio Christus, but it had to wait until 1929 for its first performance nearly fifty years after Liszt’s death. The present recording was, I think, its first, although there have been quite a number since. There was a Hungarian recording from the 1970s which was made as part of a complete ‘Liszt edition’ which was once released on CD by Hungaroton White Label but which has long been unavailable. There are two recordings on Naxos and one on Philips, all of which are surely ruled out of consideration by their use of piano duet accompaniment instead of organ; the piano may have been Liszt’s instrument, but the liturgical context demands the use of the latter. A recording conducted by Sourisse does use organ, but the instrument itself is rather reedy and lacks the solid punch that is needed for this high romantic music. The recording by the Vienna Chamber Choir uses a more appropriate instrument, but the singing is correct and well-schooled rather than impassioned; and this rambling work needs to be ‘sold’ if it is to be really effective.
Maybe it was the thrill of new discovery – Via crucis had never been performed in Britain until 1952, only seven years before – but this recording really does ‘sell’ the music. It may even over-sell it, with some decidedly rough-and-ready singing in places. It suffers terribly from a recorded acoustic which, while placing the organ at a suitable distance and with church reverberation, brings the choir far too close in what sounds like a very small hall, with a very artificial-sounding result. The back cover, while acknowledging only the date 2011, refers (in French) to “the legendary version … restored and re-mastered.” The evidence for this restoration is not immediately apparent.
In the end it is the no-holds-barred approach of the Budapest Chorus on Hungaroton, in a suitably ecclesiastical acoustic which really brings this startlingly original score to life. That version exposes the originality of the score which looks forward to the twentieth century; the chromatically tortured harmonisation of the chorale familiar from Bach’s Passions would have had Bach spinning in his grave! It is more measured, and the choir produces a really large sound which gives the music the ‘oomph’ which the composer would surely have expected. It is well worth seeking out this recording if you can find it.
When this Saga recording was originally issued on CD back in 1994 it also included a performance by the same forces of the Missa Choralis – what has happened to this? As it is this disc - which reflects the contents of the original LP (XID5079) - is extremely short measure.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
This recording really does ‘sell’ the music.