on 23 May 2011
It is extraordinary that someone as famous as Liszt was in his lifetime and since should still qualify as one of the great unknowns of music. Christus is typical of his fate. It is by any standards a major - a great - work, but it is hardly well known. It is not, for a start, what most people who don't know it probably expect. It isn't, for instance, much like Liszt's first oratorio, The Legend of St Elizabeth, which has aspects of a quasi-operatic 'telling' of a story (and very splendid it is). Christus is not in that sense a narrative piece; it isn't in the same way 'dramatic', though the music has plenty of dramatic moments and dramatic variety. The music is rather set back from the story, which is familiar enough, and functions more as a gloss or commentary on it, or a meditation on the major themes of Christ's life as Liszt conceived them. It begins and ends with fugues, but there the similarity to so many beefy Romantic choral works ends. The opening fugue, on an Advent plainchant, is quiet, swiftly moving, rapt and very beautiful. It is succeeed by choral and orchestral movements - the two often separated, for the piece has many purely choral (with light accompaniment from organ or, in one case, harmonium) and orchestral passages and very few big combined sections. Only at the end, where the text deals of the resurrection, is there anything resembling a conventional blaze-up, crowned by a large bony Amen faintly reminiscent of Bruckner (whose music Liszt, sadly, didn't really 'get'). No bombast, nothing showy, consistently lovely throughout and beautifully played and sung on this recording. I haven't heard Dorati's set or the 2007 set by Kofman. Conlon is good, though a little recessed as a recording and it has the Latin superscriptions to the score which some may like and some may not (I do). But Rilling is very good. I read in either a review on UK or USA Amazon (or somewhere on line) that Liszt was an uneven composer who produced few masterpieces. The truth is quite the opposite of this. He produced a large number of masterpieces, so many that they haven't all been properly taken on board. And perhaps we still haven't learned how to listen to him. To extend what Alfred Brendel says of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, Liszt needs defending against his detractors and some of his advocates. What has to be insisted on is his absolute seriousness and greatness, in support of which this work and this recording must play a valuable role. Rilling's or Conlon's versions can be got for a very modest outlay. If you don't know the work it will be the best modest outlay you are likely to make for a long time. Neither Richard nor Cosima Wagner understood Christus. That fact alone should alert you to its quality.