Liszt: Christus

Roman Kofman / Beethoven Orchester Bonn / Czech Philharmonic Chorus (Brno)

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Liszt: Christus Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

Apart from Mendelssohn's Elijah and Paulus, Brahms' German Requiem, and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the undisputed champ among nineteenth century oratorios is Franz Liszt's gigantic Christus. Composed in just four years between 1859 and 1863 on an unwieldy libretto by the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, Christus may have been intended as Liszt's answer to Handel's Messiah, and at least in length -- three hours -- it is certainly a comparable effort. Christus, like nearly all of Liszt's music that does not involve the piano, has never caught on in any measure comparable to the works of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, or Handel mentioned above. Nevertheless, Christus is occasionally revived, and it should be, because Liszt put some of the very best of himself into this composition. While Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein's text may be ponderous, the music never is; the orchestration is far more assured and accomplished than in either of Liszt's symphonies, and the choral writing is exquisite. Liszt wrote only one opera at the age of 14, and it was such a bomb that he resolved never to write another; Christus is useful in that it directly demonstrates what it was about Liszt's music that inspired Wagner so much, in a mechanism of delivery similar to that of opera. Despite its relative neglect, Christus is a major Romantic work.

The first recording of Christus was made by Antal Dorati in 1969 for Hungaraton. Rightfully or not, it serves as the litmus test through which the few others made since then have been judged. Dorati's enthusiasm for Christus was considerable, and his recording is marked by an intensity and unflagging energy from the first bar to the last. Nevertheless, that's not necessarily what Christus needs in all of its hundreds of measures; restraint and a sense of spaciousness could easily apply in movements such as "Hosanna, qui venit in nomine Domini," which can be described as "Wagnerian" in its sustained, carefully balanced, and consistently evolving series of events. This is what you get in MDG's 2005 recording of Christus, featuring a dedicated and excellent lineup of soloists, the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn under the direction of conductor Roman Kofman. It is a very smooth, coherent, and slightly conservative performance of Christus, and even if "Tu es Petrus" doesn't tear off your head through the sheer force of its power as it does in Dorati's recording, some of the slower, more languid passages are served better than in its predecessor while retaining some measure of bombast for the big stuff. This straightforward, clean approach can be useful for those new to Christus, particularly in the case of musicians considering mounting a performance of it. The recording is terrific, although it's a tad quieter than most other MDG products of this kind, perhaps owing to the huge swells of volume that occur when everything -- orchestra, chorus, soloists, and percussion -- gets going. For those who fancy a taste for the Romantic, this Christus can't be beat; however, even those who don't will find it a more than satisfactory representation of this rarely recorded masterwork.