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Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Via Crucis (version for piano solo 1876-79) S.53 [41:52]
La notte (arr. for violin and piano, 1864-66?) S.377a [11:46 ]*
Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
Vera Beths (violin)*
rec. 2-3 July 2012, Philharmonie Haarlem, the Netherlands
ETCETERA KTC 1458 [53:39]

Franz Liszt’s attempts to put the overcooked bombast of church music into reverse were not furthered by his Via Crucis in his lifetime. The work was rejected by publishers as musically ‘incompetent’, and it had to wait until 1929 before receiving a first performance. Reinbert de Leeuw recorded an Edison award-winning version of Liszt’s Via Crucis for the Philips label in 1986, and the atmosphere of spare restraint he created in that version with choir and piano is not dissimilar to that we have from this piano solo version. De Leeuw has long been a champion of Liszt’s remarkable late compositions, and was a founder member of the Franz Lisztkring in 1979. He and Vera Beths gave the première of La Notte in its version for violin and piano in 1980. The booklet contains his remarks on the work in interview form.
Via Crucis opens with an introduction of disarming simplicity. If you know Reinbert de Leeuw’s recordings of Erik Satie then this chorale and plainchant will remind you very much of something like the Ogives. When we get into the meat of the narrative, Liszt can be found pushes the boundaries of tonality and the pianist is also required to drive his instrument to the edge of its capabilities. Dynamic extremes are just one aspect of this, and the colours and textures which need to emerge certainly qualify as ‘orchestral’. These are however frequently not the densest passages. De Leeuw cites the Fourth Station as one of the most remarkable movements in the entire work, and you can sense this even without a conscious awareness of the tonal processes at work. “It demands enormous concentration, because every note is in exactly the right place: the music is stretched to its limit…” This applies to the entire work, but it is with such restraint and elusive expression of touch that de Leeuw makes the piece into so much more than just a string of notes. If you think of the grandest of Olivier Messiaen’s scores condensed into just a single instrument and a very few marks on paper while still retaining and communicating all of that devotional intensity, then this is something approaching what you can expect to encounter here.
Released from the chorus and its text, the solo piano version of Via Crucis takes on a character which challenges and undercuts arguably overblown keyboard marathons such as Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum. Liszt knew what he wanted to say and, late in life, clearly understood the greater meaning in a shaving from the Messiah’s carpentry bench when compared to all of the towers and gold of the Church. The choral version is indeed filled with sublime moments, but in its solo piano form that extra Biblical layer is removed, and the music penetrates the soul even deeper as a result.
La notte is another late masterpiece, and also work on which Liszt spent much time and effort in perfecting. This work is a reflection on Michelangelo’s statue of the same name, and derived from the piece Il penseroso which followed. The violin part is at once almost subsidiary to a piece which can after all be played as a work for solo piano, but at the same time it creates an atmosphere all its own. Isolated notes and ‘icy tremolos’ emerge, seemingly from nowhere, and then from about 4:30 a celestial melody is started which transforms itself into something like a lamenting gypsy czardas. There is one other equivalent recording of this piece I could find on the Hänssler Classics label CD98.634 with Friedmann Eichhorn, and Rolf-Dieter Arens in volume 2 of their complete works of Liszt set. Theirs is a good performance and recording, but doesn’t plumb the same skeletally fatalistic depths of de Leeuw and Beths. Incidentally, Jos van Immerseel on Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT040902 also offers a good solo piano performance, and with the tangy sonorities of a period Erard piano.
This Etcetera release has a rather alarming picture of Reinbert de Leeuw on the back looking as if a reading of the last rites might be in order. As I write I can however reassure readers he is in good health and with plenty of projects in the pipeline. Don’t be put off by the relatively short playing time. After listening to this properly you won’t have the strength for more. This recording has an aura of ‘specialist market’ but is in fact something really rather remarkable, and I would urge you to have it in your collection.
Dominy Clements