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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Angelus: Sacred Piano Music
Irene Russo (piano)
rec. June 2015, Camponogara, Venice, Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95196 [72:35 + 75:41]

There were many sides to Liszt’s character and one of them was that he was a religious man, devout enough to take the four minor orders in the Roman Catholic Church, which meant that he was not a priest but did have a recognised ministry as an abbé. His spirituality was of the European Counter-Reformation kind, whose tendency to flamboyance was congruent with his innate showmanship. It was a long way away from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant kind, which can make it hard for some people to appreciate that it was perfectly genuine.

He wrote a good deal of religious music, some of it on a very large scale, such as the oratorios Christus and The Legend of St Elizabeth, and some on a much smaller scale, including choral works and piano music. Additionally, he transcribed some of his choral works for piano. On this enterprising recital we have both original and transcribed works, of widely varying character.

O Roma nobilis, the two settings of the Ave Maria here – he wrote six in all – and the Pater noster were originally choral works, in fact hymns. The piano versions are relatively straightforward, though the first Ave Maria adds bell sounds towards the end and the second Ave Maria adds an elaborate new variation to the austere original. The Miserere d'après Palestrina has in fact no connection with that composer; it is based on a motet which Liszt heard in the Sistine chapel which he elaborated with tremolos and arpeggios. The two transcriptions from Mozart’s Requiem are faithful versions of their originals.

Original piano works begin with the Angelus from the third book of Années de Pèlerinage. This book is very different from its two predecessors, with little of their display. This piece opens with the tinkling of bells, followed by a sombre melody, often expressed in just a single line. Rather strangely, it is noted as for piano or harmonium, and there is also a version for string quartet (the sleeve-note wrongly gives the reference number for that version). We also have the two Legends: St Francis of Assisi preaches to the birds, with a good deal of intricate tremolo and chromatic writing passed between the two hands, while a melody in thirds or sixths soars above. (Ravel copied this effect in Ondine.) St Francis of Paola walks on the waves with a splendid melody underpinned by the roaring of the waters which becomes ever more insistent. (Fans of these works should not miss Liszt’s orchestral versions, which have been recorded by Conlon and Noseda.)

The Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is the longest original work here and one of Liszt’s masterpieces. It is long, lyrical and serene. As Humphrey Searle says: “it expresses that feeling of mystical contemplation which Beethoven attained in his last period”. Here the decorative writing is integral to the work and the writing, though at times elaborate, is the fruit of an inward vision.

The Totentanz is different from everything else in this recital; it is Liszt’s version of his original for piano and orchestra and is a celebrated piece of diablerie. This represents another side of the composer and one he took seriously. He worked on this piece, on and off, for twenty-five years and then took another five to produce the piano version. It is based on the medieval hymn the Dies irae which he turns, as Irene Russo correctly remarks, into a sort of frantic infernal dance.

However, much the longest work here is the piano transcription of Via Crucis, a strange, often very chromatic but at other times bare and gaunt work originally for choir and organ dramatizing the Stations of the Cross using texts chosen by Liszt’s onetime mistress the Princess Wittgenstein. (The Stations of the Cross are the fourteen scenes from Christ’s journey to Calvary, developed as a devotion by the Franciscans and often shown in pictures round the walls of Catholic churches; they are less common in Protestant ones.) There are therefore fourteen movements with an introductory version of the Passiontide hymn Vexilla Regis, with its metre regularized and with added harmonies, as was Liszt’s way with plainsong. Liszt also draws on the Stabat Mater and on two German Lutheran hymns in his own harmonizations. Each movement is quite short and each illustrates a scene. The organ does not only support the choir but has many long passages on its own and there are few solos for singers. In its original form it is a sombre and moving set of meditations, not perhaps a complete success but comparable to Haydn’s Seven Last Words.

However, as a piano solo it becomes a weary trudge, not helped by the slow tempi Irene Russo has chosen, nor by the incomprehensible decision of Brilliant Classics to present this work in one unbroken track lasting over three quarters of an hour. This makes it impossible to link the music to the scene portrayed unless you have a list of the stations and keep careful count, or have a score. I can imagine a pianist who is also devout wanting to play a movement or two over in private, but I do wonder how often listeners will want to hear this work straight through unbroken in this version. I recommend instead the fine version of the original with chorus and organ by Matthew Best on Hyperion (review).

This is Irene Russo’s first commercial recording. She has been praised by Martha Argerich and has built up a career mainly in Europe. She is based in Leuven, Belgium. This must have been a labour of love: not many pianists have concentrated on this side of Liszt’s art. Her playing is spacious and leisurely, with careful pedalling and exact observance of the often intricate rhythms of the most elaborate passages. One mannerism – or maybe she is using different editions from the Hungarian complete series I was consulting – is that she often fails to spread left hand chords when this is specified, but this is a small thing. She is recorded in an atmospheric acoustic and the disc sounds well. She wrote her own well-informed sleeve-note, and it has been well translated.

There is no direct rival for this programme. I have compared Irene Russo with Louis Lortie in the Angelus, with Steven Osborne in the three pieces from the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, and with Leslie Howard in some of the other short pieces, and she holds her own without excelling them. It is a shame that the Via Crucis is so hard to listen to. But this is an enterprising pianist and programme and deserves support.

Stephen Barber

Track listing
O Roma nobilis S546a [2:11]
Zwei Transcriptionen über Themen aus Mozarts Requiem S550:
No 1 Confutatis [3:12]
No 2 Lacrymosa [3:49]
Via crucis S504a [46:56]
Totentanz: Paraphrase on the Dies Irae S525 [16:23]
Années de Pèlerinage. Troisième Année S 163: no 1, Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens [10:17]
Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses S 173: no 8, Miserere d'après Palestrina [5:04]
Ave Maria, "Die Glocken von Rom" S 182 [6:54]
Ave Maria II (aus den neun Kirchenchorgesängen) in D flat major, S 504 (second version) [6:45]
Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses S 173: no 3, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude [21:12]
Deux Légendes S 175:
No 1 St François d’Assise: la Prédication aux oiseaux [11:31]
No 2 St François de Paule marchant sur les flots [9:23]
Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses S 173: no 5, Pater noster, d’après la psalmodie de l’église [4:29]



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