liszt via crucis hortus

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2005 and the recording is still available.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Via Crucis, S53, R534 (1879)
Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, S179, R382 (1863)
Les Morts, S268/2, R390b (1870)
Vincent Genvrin (Walcker organ)
Chœur Sacrum/Andris Veismanis
rec. 1994, Riga Cathedral, Lithuania
Latin text, French translation
Hortus 002 [71]

Via Crucis for chorus and organ — not chorus accompanied by organ, but chorus and organ in dialogue — is one of Liszt’s very finest works. This is the best performance and recording of it I’ve ever heard.

One might be amazed that I would be so enthusiastic for Liszt’s religious music since to say that I adhere to a different faith would be an understatement. However I believe that the religious impulse is a human universal. Liszt, like Bach, was able to express that universal in his religious music.

Amazingly, the organ can be replaced by the piano to very good effect as it is in the Liszt Digital recording. Obviously the fearsome terror of the moment is projected less awesomely, but this remains a valid alternative performance. The Hungarians perform with rather more conventional religiosity, and the sound is just a little dated, but this also is a fine performance. It appears that finally the magnificent old Saga LP has met its match, although I will always cherish its memory.

All these works are very sharply focused on the crucifixion, the suffering and death of Jesus, his heavy steps as he carries the cross toward Calvary, and as such are gloomy and tragic in mood. Liszt wrote the Weinen Klagen Sorgen Sagen variations on the ostinato of Bach’s Cantata #12 while he was in mourning for his son who died tragically young on the threshold of a brilliant scholarly career. The concluding chorale from the same Bach cantata brings the work to a close in a mood of hope. The piano version is primary, the organ version an arrangement thereof; the Searle catalogue does not give the organ version a separate number.

Since the artist is not only organist at several churches but also a teacher of religion, one expects his performances of the solo organ works to be intensely religious in tone and expressive of a personal conviction. While it is no doubt a devout performance, it’s not a well-paced dramatic one, tending to get very quiet and very loud with little time spent in between. A more ordered subordination of dynamic levels would have better projected the drama, but there is no doubt about the artist’s intense personal involvement in this music. This instrument could hardly have been better shown off, with dynamics from quieter than a whisper to threshold of pain, as your surround sound processor re-creates the original five second die-away time acoustic of the Riga Cathedral in your listening room; even though the label makes no mention of surround sound, but don’t let that stop you. One of the finest organ recordings I’ve ever heard, an experience not to be missed.

Gábor Lehotka gives a sonically more varied and dramatically more effective performance. Jean-Pierre LeGuay plays the enormous Notre Dame Paris organ for a truly huge sounding cathedral performance, also filling your listening space with cathedral acoustics via your surround sound processor. Since these performances are all so different, I suspect Mr. Searle is right, the organ version isn’t really a new edition, just the piano music printed in organ format, leaving registrations, etc., entirely to the discretion of the performer.

The label and notes refer to Les Morts as “Oraison;” however, Liszt called it Trauerode or Ode funèbreOraison, or its English equivalent ‘orison,’ is a very old word meaning ‘prayer,’ and its use here connotes age and mystery — in other words, a little bit of hype. Trauerode makes use of fragments of the same chorale tune as the WKSG Variations so the two works go well together. As with the Variations, Genvrin’s performance is of an intense personal mysteriousness whereas Elekes’ equally fine version is more conventionally dramatic.

The English word “partition” does not in modern usage correspond to the French word partition as this translator writes. The OED gives this definition as #8 and labels it as an obsolete or rare; a translator should use the English “score” or “full score”. This is one of those faux amis all of which a good translator should know well. Apart from this, Brian Downes’ translation is unusually good.

Paul Shoemaker

Availability: Editions Hortus