This 2007 Hungaraton reissue is the first release on CD of one of conductor János Ferencsik's crowning achievements, his 1973 recording of Franz Liszt's oratorio Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth (The Legend of St. Elizabeth of Hungary). This recording was the first ever made of Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth, which represented a breakthrough in Liszt's sacred canon, despite its obscurity -- by August 2007; only three more recordings had followed this 1973 rendition. Its lack of popularity is difficult to understand, as anyone who loves the music of Richard Wagner should take easily to Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth. In terms of basic structure, mood, and dramatic content it reads just like one of Wagner's music dramas. A couple of exceptions are noted in that (a) it is not an opera, though it sure sounds like one and (b) the folk melodies Liszt referred to for inspiration were Hungarian rather than German, though a lot of them came from German sources and, again, it's not easy to tell the difference. Otherwise, Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth might very well be one of the greatest Wagnerian operas that you have never heard; it employs character-driven leitmotivs, several of which are summarized in an orchestral interlude near the end of the work, and huge forces. At its original 1865 premiere in Budapest, it is reported that more than 500 people were involved in the performance of Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth.
Ferencsik obviously believes very strongly in the work and delivers an exceptionally fine, flawlessly shaped, and balanced performance here. The singers and chorus are also very strong -- the basses, though, do stand out, particularly Kolos Kováts in the role of Landgrave Herrmann I, Elizabeth's father-in-law who engages her to his son for reasons of political efficacy when she is no more than four years old. Hungaraton's recording has not dated at all, though it does tend to favor the brass instruments in some sections. Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth has been faulted in some circles for its relative lack of memorable melodies and variety of tempi; such a view ignores the seriousness of purpose of the work -- for that matter Götterdämmerung could be faulted on the same basis. One cannot speak of Liszt aping the example of Wagner without being considered a fool -- there is ample documentary evidence that concedes Liszt's own impact on Wagner was enormous. Perhaps most accurately Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth can be seen as an example of Liszt filtering into this big project interests and aesthetic values that Wagner and he shared. If you are so interested in Wagnerian opera that you have visited Bayreuth or have obtained a set of the Ring, then Franz Liszt's oratorio Die Legende von der heligen Elisabeth is a place you can safely go for more, and it has never been done better than the way János Ferencsik handled it in 1973 for Hungaraton.