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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Via Crucis (The 14 Stations of the Cross), S.53 (1878) [36:59]
Salve Regina, S.66 (1885) [3:24]
Vater unser, S.29 (1862) [6:55]
Ave verum corpus, S.44 (1871) [2:45]
Collegium Vocale Gent/Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
Marnix de Cat (organ: S29 & 44)
rec. 2017, Sint-Machariuskerk, Gent, Belgium
Latin texts and translations included
ALPHA CLASSICS 390 [50:12]

As a critic one is expected to be professionally flexible, or flexibly professional: one gets a selection of discs to listen to, and one has a perceived deadline, a defined time-frame in which to listen and consider. Liszt’s late sacred masterpiece, Via Crucis is one of those rare pieces that I find impossible to ‘just listen to’. One has to be in a very particular emotional place – if one is anywhere else the music is likely to fade, unappreciated, into the ether. One must be completely tuned in, prepared. This is spare, ascetic music, hewn from a mysterious alchemy of complexity and purity. Its modernity is such that it is as impossible to square its revolutionary nature with the date of its provenance (1878) as it is to believe that its composer was in his youth the ultimate showman. Like a latter-day Scott Walker (whose recent passing was mourned especially in my house) he became something of a hermit in his later years; much of his later music is experimental, yet utterly heartfelt, and could not have been written at all without uncompromising belief. He more or less completely turned his back on the too-easily gained successes of his past and set out on a cleansing if lonely path: to extend the Walker analogy Via Crucis is in effect Liszt’s ‘Tilt’.
The probing, indefatigable pianist, conductor and composer Reinbert de Leeuw has made a career out of a close embrace with the ascetic. His two most recent collaborations with Barbara Hannigan were each greatly lauded: a revelatory Satie album (Socrate, on Winter & Winter) and a recital, also on Alpha with the self-explanatory title Vienna: Fin de Siècle. Across more than three decades he has revelled in performing the works of Galina Ustvolskaya, music as austere as it is severe. This is his second recording of the original, choral version of Via Crucis– the first, with the Netherlands Chamber Choir on Philips (416 649-2), emerged way back in 1985, and received an Edison Award. Since then he has recorded a surprisingly revealing account of Liszt’s solo piano version of the work for Etcetera (read Dominy Clements’ insightful review here). In this guise Liszt’s music borders on the confessional. He really does know this piece inside out and in this new reading he proves to be the most illuminating of guides. Initially Via Crucis may seem cool, even astringent, but greater familiarity enables the responsive listener to appreciate a searching, intense vision. It is compellingly realised here by de Leeuw in league with the sixteen voices of Philippe Herreweghe’s regular collaborators, Collegium Vocale Gent.

The fifteen sections of the work proceed with increasing complexity and Liszt’s striking accompaniment, often heard on harmonium or organ, conveys a very different spirit on a modern piano. The Alpha recording covers a big dynamic range given the limited forces involved. Right from the outset of Via Crucis, and the Gregorian flavoured monody of its opening ‘prelude’ ‘Vexilla Regis’, with its harmonic pre-figurings of Ravel or even Satie, de Leeuw provides a masterclass in projecting the architecture of this singular ‘Passion’. The gradual accretion of intensity is perfectly achieved by the administration of ever more subtle variations in pacing and emphasis as the work develops. The modernity of Liszt’s writing takes full hold from the First Station onwards, and yet, in de Leeuw’s hands at least, his experimentation never appears wilful or contrived; in fact it emerges as a heartfelt attempt to overhaul radically a tradition of sacred music that was becoming increasingly stale in the composer’s eyes. Too often I have heard recordings or performances of Via Crucis whose impact has been blunted by performers who seem determined to shape the work according to their preconceptions of what ‘Liszt’ should sound like, or perhaps what a ‘Passion’ should sound like, or in some cases both. Here de Leeuw presents the work ‘as writ’, with no attempt to soften, sentimentalise or ‘Lisztify’. The music speaks eloquently for itself, as do its abundant, perfectly calculated silences; they exist so that, to provide one example, the high voices’ touching, closely harmonised ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ contributions to Stations III, VII and IX sound almost (but not quite) angelic, piercing the texture and the mood like shafts of sunlight, while in the purely instrumental Stations (IV and V) de Leeuw’s deep engagement with the score ensures that its increasingly tortured, halting chromaticism invokes a power that is literally beyond words. The desolate extended solo passage that concludes Station XIII is no less fractured, stumbling and devastating.

Collegium Vocale’s superbly prepared contribution to the success of this account indicates a real consensus of vision, their austere delivery projecting cool, yet lasting spirituality. A special word too for their excellent bass soloist, Sebastian Myrus, and his contributions during the second half of the work; they are perfectly pitched both tonally and emotionally.

In de Leeuw’s new, revelatory performance of Via Crucis then the essence of the older Liszt’s faith is distilled in a reading of profound concentration; it seems designed to elicit the most profound contemplation in the listener, rather than any sense of hard-won consolation. But I reiterate – in my view the listener has to be willing to submit to the work absolutely to even begin to comprehend its secrets. It’s not easy.

Nor can the three sacred hymn settings that follow this profound ‘main course’ in any way be considered as ‘palate cleansers’. One of Liszt’s very last works, the Salve Regina of 1885 was his only completely acapella work. It occupies a very different aesthetic to the Via Crucis, exulting in radiant, luminous harmonies which aptly reflect its text. The much earlier Vater Unser harks back to the glories of Renaissance polyphony, while the better known setting of Ave Verum Corpus explores a chromaticism that is less taxing than that in the main work on this disc, but no less powerful. Both of these last two works involve organ accompaniment, and Collegium Vocale’s accounts of each of these hymns are profoundly affecting. Alpha’s sound is perfectly suited to the singular demands of all these works. They round off a truly thought provoking, aesthetically satisfying issue.

Richard Hanlon

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