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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Transcriptions of excerpts from the Oratorios Christus and The Legend of St Elisabeth
Zwei Orchestersätze aus dem oratorium Christus, S. 498b [27:20]
Drei Stücke aus der Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth S. 498a [24:58]
Zwei Stücke aus dem oratorium Christus, S. 498c [24:11]
Henry Kramer (piano)
rec. 2015, Morse Recital Hall, Yale School of Music, New Haven, USA
Complete piano music 47
NAXOS 8.573385 [76:40]

Liszt was a devout man and, in his later years, he composed a good deal of music for the church. Some of this was on a small scale, and I greatly enjoyed a disc of these works a few years ago (review). He also composed two large oratorios: The Legend of St Elisabeth, who was the patron saint of Hungary, and Christus. He apparently saw Christus as his musical testament. It is very occasionally performed and I attended a performance years ago, hoping to discover a masterpiece, only to be greatly disappointed. Charles Rosen analysed the failure of much nineteenth century religious music acutely in his book The Romantic Generation, saying, for example, that ‘What causes, for example, Liszt’s oratorio Saint Elisabeth to be so exasperating is that the music contains so little of the composer’s fundamental vitality; for the most part he represses even his genius for a play of sonorities.’ I haven’t heard St Elisabeth, but this was certainly my impression of Christus.

However, here we have some piano transcriptions he made from these works, and in writing for his own instrument I was open to the possibility that he might have made satisfying piano works from them. This is partly true. The first work here, the Song of the Shepherds at the crib, begins with an evocation of shepherd pipes in the traditional triple time. This settles down to a charming tune. Later we hear a chorale-like passage, presumably conveying the message of the angels. There is an increase in splendour before a quiet ending. This is followed by the March of the three kings (the magi of Matthew’s gospel had become kings in popular piety and religious art by the sixth century). As well as the journey, the star and the presentation of the gifts are represented and there is a quiet passage before the final climax. These are both moderately successful pieces, though not among Liszt’s best.

The three transcriptions from St Elisabeth begin with one of the orchestral introduction, which is based on a plainsong motif. This is a gentle piece. The following March of the Crusaders shows her husband leaving for the crusade, in which he is killed. This is nothing like as dramatic as one might have hoped. The final Interlude came just before the end of the work and reviews all the themes, which occur in it. I found this episodic and lacking coherence.

There is a bit of a mystery about the two final pieces, which are more transcriptions from Christus. The sleeve gives these the reference S. 498c from Humphrey Searle’s catalogue of Liszt’s works, but, in the three versions of the catalogue I have consulted, that number is given to a different work entirely, and I can find no reference to these transcriptions. They are not even included in Leslie Howard’s supposedly complete recording of Liszt’s piano music, which has the other pieces here in volume 14 of his series. The sleevenote here says they come from the vocal score of the work, implying, possibly rightly, that this was made by Liszt himself. However, the mystery is greater than their interest. The Miracle is that, in which Jesus calms the storm; Searle in his book on Liszt calls the original orchestral version of this ‘magnificent.’ Alas, I do not find the piano version so: it seems to me a much weaker rehandling of an idea Liszt had already presented superbly in the second of his two Franciscan legends, St Francis of Paola walking on the waves, which I would gladly agree is indeed magnificent, in either its orchestral or its piano version.

This is followed by the Introduction and Pastorale, which come from the beginning of the work and are different representations of the angelic announcement to the shepherds. These are much weaker than the version, which began the disc and I find it of little interest.

The American pianist Henry Kramer has won numerous prizes and provides conscientious and musical performances. If, in some of them, he seems to be plodding dutifully, that is more Liszt’s fault than his. The recording is very good and the sleevenotes helpful, apart from the issue of the provenance of the final two transcriptions. However, the spine of the disc says only Liszt piano music 47, which means that those collecting the series, or even just a few of the discs, will have to take them out to see what is on them. Hyperion, in their Liszt series, sensibly used the spine to tell us what was on the disc and put the number in the series in a less prominent place.

Liszt completists will want this; others should explore the many Liszt works which are both better and better-known.

Stephen Barber


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