“Faith of My Heart: Sacred Music of FRANZ LISZT” = Pater Noster; Ave Maria; Christus ist geboren; Ave maris stella; Rosario; Qui seminant in lacrimis; Missa Choralis; Nun danket alle Gott – Gloriæ Dei Cantores / Elizabeth C. Patterson – Gloriæ Dei Cantores, multichannel SACD GDCD 049, 68:15 [Paraclete Press] [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Like many spiritual people, Franz Liszt was conflicted, but the picture we have of his worldliness seems so strong as to make his commitment to the spirit appear almost hypocritical. Like St. Augustine, the young Liszt wanted God to make him chaste—but not yet. Before he embarked on his dual career as composer and performer, Liszt considered entering the Church and came under the spiritual influence of Abbé Hugues de Lamennais, who advocated religious and political freedom and Christian brotherhood. But the lure of the glamorous life of the traveling virtuoso proved irresistible for Liszt. He ended up living in sin, as we say, with two noblewomen of influence, first Comtesse Marie d’Agoult (whom he apparently cheated on with healthy regularity) and then Princess Carolyn of Sayn-Wittgenstein. The latter we can thank for turning Liszt into a serious composer of music beyond mere virtuoso performing vehicles. And while following the death of two of his children he withdrew increasingly from the world, retiring to a monastery near Rome in 1863 and taking minor orders in the Church (which entitled him to the honorific Abbé), by 1870 Liszt was back in traveling mode, teaching master classes in piano at Weimar and Budapest, returning to Rome for spiritual solace—and engaging in further amatory alliances.
Yet listening to Liszt’s sacred music, one can hear that he was no secularist, like Verdi or Brahms, turning to sacred texts mainly because that’s what great composers sometimes do. Liszt’s sacred music is truly heartfelt, reflective of a belief in the tenets behind the words. What’s more, Liszt took religious music seriously enough to embrace the Caecilian Movement in its attempt to reform Church music by returning to the purity of medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony. Liszt had had an interest in the music of Palestrina since he first heard it performed in the Sistine Chapel in 1839, and when he returned to Rome in the 1860s he recommitted himself to a study of plainchant and of Palestrina and his contemporaries.
The most significant work in the present collection, the Missa Choralis of 1864, comes from these years of seclusion in Rome and reflects Liszt’s musical studies. The Kyrie and Gloria sections are based on plainchant; and in the austerely beautiful tradition of Renaissance polyphony, the work was intended by Liszt to be performed a capella, as it is here (though he later published the Missa with organ accompaniment). While homophony and polyphony alternate in the piece, the polyphonic writing is mostly simple—canons in which the vocal threads are easily followed and the text always shines through in the best High-Renaissance fashion. What distinguishes this work is Liszt’s harmony, fully Romantic and often daring, with sometimes jarring chromaticism—for instance, the Benedictus, whose first tenor solo is rife with problematic (in 1865, at least) accidentals. The same “difficult” music recurs in the Angus Dei when the basses negotiate their way through a minefield of accidentals on the distressed plea Miserere nobis (“Have mercy on us”).
The program on this CD ranges from the Ave Maria of 1846 to one of Liszt’s final works for chorus, Qui seminant in lacrimis (“All they that sow in grief and tears,” 1884). All show the same trend toward simplicity of musical utterance, a desire to showcase rather than submerge the sacred text, but they also demonstrate a progression toward the harmonic experimentation that characterizes Liszt in his later years.
The program ends with Liszt’s stately treatment of the Protestant chorale Nun danket alle Gott (“Now thank we all our God”). Written to dedicate the new organ at the Cathedral of Riga, Latvia, it starts with a fragmentary statement, if you can call it that, of the chorale theme on the organ. Liszt continues for several minutes to dissect the theme, transforming bits and pieces before he’s stated it in full, which he finally does, nobly, in a peroration for organ, brass, and timpani. Even in this occasional music we find Liszt the musical innovator: this kind of fragmentary statement of a theme before full disclosure would be a staple of twentieth-century symphonic writing.
These are rewarding performances from Gloriæ Dei Cantores. Their belief in Liszt’s music is evident in every measure. And they certainly must be commended for their vocal control in pieces where harmony is often at odds with expectation and where voices are sometimes mercilessly exposed. This is especially true in the a capella selections, where there is no comforting source of constant pitch to hang onto.
The recording (made in the choir’s usual recording venue, a church in Massachusetts) is an intimate affair. The listener seems to have a seat in about the fifth row (or pew). But there is still a generous sense of ambience here, and in louder passages the sound swells to envelope you as you listen, at least in SACD surround mode. Stimulating—an excellent way to experience the special sound world Liszt creates in his choral music.
— Lee Passarella