LISZT: Missa Choralis; KODALY: Agnus Dei; Psalm 114; Psalm 121 – Elisabeth Thomann, soprano/ Elfriede Jahn, alto/ Stafford Wing, tenor/ Eishi Kawamura, bass/ Harald Buchsbaum, baritone/ Josef Nebois, Organ/ Vienna Chamber Choir/ Hans Gillesberger (Liszt)/ The Whikehart Chorale/ Lewis Whikehart – Tuxedo Music TUXCD 1078, 41:47 (orig. 4/15/2000) [Distr. by Albany] ***:

The perpetual musical explorer, Franz Liszt, addressed liturgical expression with the same dedication he had applied to piano and symphonic composition. Having taken minor ecclesiastical orders in 1865, Liszt set out in the Missa Choralis (1872) to reform church music by returning to its “simple” roots in plainsong and Palestrina.  Liszt adds his own modal and chromatic syntax to the six sections of the score, carefully selecting his numbers of vocal forces to contribute to the symbolism of the occasion: seven voices for the Sanctus; eight voices for the Benedictus. The moments often capture the archaic spirit of the Gregorian choir: chaste, direct, anguished, and sincere. The music moves in relatively direct terms, in unison or in homophonic textures. Liszt objected to the extensive “operetta” style of late Nineteenth Century church music. Each text is set a cappella with organ support. When we listen to the purity of the musical effect, we often forget the audacity of Liszt’s harmonic modulations. The emphases from conductor Gillesberger (1909-1986) and his poised forces remain fixated on the power of the Latin texts.

Early in 1945 Red Army troops finally overcame the German forces who had been occupying the city of Budapest. The surviving civilian population emerged from where they had been sheltering during the seven weeks of non-stop bombing, to find large parts of the city destroyed. Kodály was caught up in this carnage, taking refuge in the cellar of the Budapest Opera House where, somewhat improbably, the Missa Brevis was composed. It was not an entirely new piece, but a re-working of the composer’s purely instrumental Organ Mass of 1942. First performed in the cloakroom of the Opera House, it later received its official première at the 1948 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester.

In the Agnus Dei the melody used for ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ in the Gloria makes a re-appearance. After a jubilant climax the final extended ‘Dona nobis pacem’ constitutes a reworking of the entire Kyrie movement, bringing the Mass round full circle, in fact a palindrome. The work concludes with the Ite, Missa Est for organ solo, a triumphant affirmation based on themes from the Credo. The two short Psalms (sung in German) reinforce Kodaly’s faithful optimism and feature some heroically angular measures for the organ in ceremonial style. The recordings from 1961-1962 enjoy a good sonic presence.  I balk at the brevity of the disc, which could have included the Liszt Via Crucis without strain.

—Gary Lemco