LISZT: Christus (Oratorio, trans. Liszt) – Nicolas Horvath, piano – Edition Hortus 100, 70:15 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Between 1862-1866 Liszt worked on his oratorio Christus, a devout but traditional meditation on the life of Christ, from his birth through his passion and resurrection. Liszt consulted the Bible, the Catholic liturgy, and ancient Latin hymns and Gregorian chants as sources for his originally three-hour production, in which the symphony orchestra would serve even as more a commentary and narrative device than the chorus, much as Wagner’s orchestra supplies thematic relationships and allusions for his operas.
Liszt conceived Christus at a time of personal isolation and spiritual retreat: his children Daniel and Blandine had died; his relationship with daughter Cosima had declined; and his proposed marriage to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein has been postponed once more. Taking refuge at the monastery Madonna del Rosario in Rome and taking the minor orders of an abbe, Liszt felt that Cecilian musical principles should direct church composition, its precedents lying in Gregorian chant and Palestrina. Liszt set the oratorio into fourteen sections or “frescoes,” each episode’s conforming to its own musical style, from early monody through avant-garde post-Romaniticism. While pianist Leslie Howard had recorded five movements from the work in piano transcription of the vocal and orchestral scores, he also proceeded to deliver to Nicolas Horvath three other movements; these, along with Horvath’s own investigations into the Tristis est anima mea, Tu es Petrus, and O filii et fliiae movements, produced a playable keyboard solo. Horvath notes that “the eight movements presented. . .evince admirable continuity, without rupture as to keys, and form a superb musical cycle.”
An enchanting, sweet parlando in counterpoint opens the suite – Einleitung – invoking the introit of the fourth Sunday of Avant Rorate Coeli. The text, from Isaiah: 45-8, inspires Liszt to write a kind of “advent,” a modal annunciation in the kind of rapturous chords we know from his B Minor Sonata and the Faust-Symphony. The ensuing Pastorale prefigures Debussy in its naïve shepherds’ figures, the text from Luke: 2, 8-10. The glittery arpeggios and dancing, staccato syncopations enjoy a rustic charm and ingenuous jubilation suited to the glad tidings, the ending trills’ sounding like nuptials. Based on a chant sung by the burghers “a la Creche,” it offers a march or pilgrimage in bold colors – and a deeply meditative middle section – rife with wonder and mystery. Several musical lines intertwine in rustic style, always urging a chorale subtext, as we find in Liszt’s St. Francis Legends.
Die Heilingen Drei Koenige celebrates the Three Magi, as told in Matthew 11:9-11. An assertive processional for the Three Kings, the music intensifies at every bar, perhaps reminding some of Liszt’s procedure in his Vallee d’Obermann. Another lyrical meditation constitutes the middle section of simple devotion, though the parlando line (in a Bach mode) intensifies in a manner we might associate with a spare nocturne or slow invention. Soon the harmonies thicken, and we feel liquid transports close to the Villa d’Este. Bold ascending scales invoke a majestic annunciation, an illumined virtuosity that easily rivals anything in your favorite Hungarian Rhapsody.
Die Gruendung der Kirche (The Foundation of the Church), taken from Matthew: 16:8, seems to borrow from Schubert’s harmonic syntax but adds the rudiments of a new vertical alignment, one that points to both Schoenberg and French Impressionism. Liszt often alternates the piano’s registers in a sort of antiphon, then the voices blend in quasi-chorale. See John: 21, 15-17 to witness the better the panoply of sound Liszt conjures as a peroration to the admonition, “Tend my sheep.”
In the spirit of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude “Orage,” we have Das Wunder (The Miracle), another of the composer’s wild tempests of sound and fury, with pianist Horvath in the midst of apocalypse or an emotional cataclysm of cosmic scale (Matthew: 8, 24-26). A pregnant pause leads to an angular theme in modal colors that cannot decide between homophonic or polyphonic treatment. “Ye of little faith, why be ye so afraid?” As opposed to the overt trembling of Das Wunder, the longest section, Tristis est anima mea (Matthew: 26, 38-39) presents, at first, austere harmonies that look back to late Beethoven and ahead to chromatic frenzied Scriabin. Here, Jesus suffers a weakness of will in his last hours, a moment of existential despair. Violent desolation of spirit erupts once more, the harmonies comparable to those from the Dante Sonata, fraught with thunderous octaves, tremolos, and cruel fortissimos. The music staggers forward, since Jesus himself fell to the earth in prayer to God to exert His divine will. For several minutes, we endure an harmonic no-man’s land – then, suddenly Liszt sees bliss, harmonizing the Annus novus in gaudio from the Abbey of Saint Martial in Limoges. The Easter Hymn rises, a call to all Sons and Daughters in the Lord, to rise in simple ecstasy, much as the Christus cycle began, since God may be “the simplest thing of all.”