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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sacred Choral Music
Vater unser S. 29 [9:48]
Pater noster in F S.41.1 [4:10]
Qui seminant in lacrimis S. 63 [2:50]
Ave Maria in A S. 20.2 [6:02]
Ave maris stella S. 34.1 [4:57]
Salve Regina S. 66 [3:14]
Mariengarten “Quasi cedrus” S. 62 [4:09]
Ave verum corpus S. 44 [3:21]
Die Seligpreisungen S. 25 [8:10]
Der 137. Psalm “An den Wassern zu Babylon” S.17 [9:51]
Felix Heuse (baritone), Katja Pieweck (soprano), Florin Paul (violin), Birgit Bachhuber (harp)
Sebastian Borleis, Nikolaj Budzyn (organ)
Kammerchor I Vocalisti/Hans-Joachim Lustig
rec. 2015, St Gorgonius, Niedernstöcken
CARUS 83.465 [56:38]

Liszt had always been devout but his faith moved to a higher level in 1865 when he took minor orders – short of becoming a priest – in the church and could then be known as the Abbé Liszt. He was also interested in improving the standard of composition for the church, which was then at a low ebb. He composed around sixty religious works. The two largest, the oratorios The Legend of St Elisabeth and Christus enjoy the very occasional outing and recording but his smaller religious works are almost unknown. Here we have ten of them and we can make up our own mind. This disc is in effect a companion to the volume of sheet music of Liszt’s shorter sacred works issued in 2001 by the publishing arm of the same company, Carus, with the title Zwölf Stücke (twelve pieces), as all but the last appear in it.

First impressions are that the idiom is very close to that of Bruckner’s motets, which are much better known ,and also at points to Wagner’s Parsifal. This is a bit unfair, as Liszt established the idiom first, which was taken up by Wagner and then by Bruckner from Wagner. There is the occasional reference to Gregorian chant and Palestrina, which Liszt regarded as the basis of church music. However, Liszt seems to have little interest in a cappella writing and all but one of these pieces have an organ accompaniment. The harmony is rich and chromatic, with some surprising modulations and the writing for voices is sometimes very elaborate, with two of the pieces being in seven parts.

These works are very varied. Six are in Latin, the remainder in German. The two settings of The Lord’s Prayer are strongly contrasted: the first, in German is for seven voices with overlapping lines, contrast between tutti and thinner passages and full development. The second, in Latin, is half the length and is a simple homophonic setting. There are some very short pieces: Qui seminant, which is very late and seems to quote from the opening of Act III of Parsifal, transforms the opening tearful chromatic motif into a joyful one to suit the words. The Marian antiphon Salve Regina is most intricately worked in its short compass. The Ave Maria in A, one of three settings Liszt made of this text, is a gentle and lovely piece in a swaying triple time.

Of the longer works, Mariengarten is another late work with strange, unsettled and unsettling harmony with much use of augmented chords. Die Seligpreisungen (The Beatitudes) features a solo baritone alternating with the seven-part choir. And the jewel of the collection is the last piece, a setting of Psalm 137, or rather of most of it, omitting the cursing verses at the end as do many performances — although not Walton in Belshazzar’s Feast. This is for women’s voices with solo violin, harp and organ. It comes from rather earlier in Liszt’s career and the composer himself rightly said it had a “dark, mystical tone colour”. The unusual forces must mean that this cannot get many performances but I live in hope that a choir which decides to mount a performance of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which is for women’s voices and harp, in a church, might consider putting this on the same programme. This is not included in the Carus volume but they publish it separately.

The pieces are expertly performed by quite a large – thirty voices – professional choir. This is obviously not the kind of choir a parish church or even a cathedral would mount but it is worth accepting the compromise because the pieces are some of them quite difficult in their chromaticism and it is good to have these absolutely secure performances. The disc is rather short measure: I fancy there would have been room for at least one of the remaining three works in the Carus volume, but there are very few alternatives and for some of these are the only performances listed as currently available. The church acoustic is supportive to the vocal lines. The booklet is very helpful on the musical background to the pieces but the writer fails to identify the liturgical occasions for some of the pieces. So, for the record I should point out that Qui seminant is the Tract for the Mass for many martyrs when in Lent, and the text of Mariengarten is not as obscure as he says it is. It comes, as he rightly says, from the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach. This is in The Apocrypha, which is often omitted from Protestant Bibles. It is titled Ecclesiasticus in the King James version but Ben Sira in some modern versions. However, it is part of the regular canon in the Roman Catholic church, and adherents would know it even better as one of the readings in the Little Hours of the Virgin Mary, a popular devotion for lay people; hence its title here. The booklet gives original Latin or German texts with English translations for all and German ones for the Latin. However, the English versions, though accurate enough, are not one of them the standard one, a curious fit of perversity. Still, this is a most valuable disc and I hope it encourages some church music directors to include some of these pieces as motets or anthems.

Stephen Barber


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