Honved Ensemble Male Choir

Liszt; Szeksárd Mass; Prometheus Cantata

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Some of Hungaroton's efforts toward recording Franz Liszt's unjustly neglected sacred choral music are achieved through digging back into the archives and recombining recordings made for LP; this recording of Liszt's Szekszárd Mass and the Prometheus Cantata dates from 1969 and 1972, respectively. What they are calling the Szekszárd Mass is Liszt's 1869 revision of his own Missa vocum ad aequales concinente organo, a work originally drafted in 1848 that exists in three distinct versions. This final incarnation, cataloged by Searle as "R. 485b," was created to fulfill a promise made to a friend residing in the Hungarian town (now city) of Szekszárd to write an original mass for one of its many churches. Liszt ultimately could not comply with an original work, but offered to dust off an older one for Szekszárd. The first performance, scheduled for 1870, was canceled after a single open rehearsal in Budapest; the premiere was given in 1872 in Jena instead.

The Missa vocum ad aequales concinente organo is about the purest musical statement one is likely to find in Liszt's generally arcane and hyper-complex sacred music. Not at all florid or heavy like Die Legende von der heilgen Elisabeth, it is scored for tenors and basses in four parts with an organ accompaniment. The revised version decidedly reflects Liszt's later preferences in terms of scoring and texture; in creating it, Liszt expanded unison plainchant incipits merely alluded to in the original and pared down the organ part to almost nothing. In 1872 such extreme concision of expression must have seemed to some listeners like Liszt was losing his grip, as at the time bigger was definitely considered better. This 1969 recording by the Honvéd Ensemble Male Choir is truly a wonderful one, with clear, balanced, and truly "equal" voices. Despite its odd nakedness in terms of texture, there are moments of nineteenth century sentimentality that seep through in this music, and the wonderfully old-fashioned tenor in the Honvéd Ensemble pulls a Caruso, taking these moments over the top where they belong. Hungaraton's recording is well preserved and does not sound its age, easily making the transfer to digital.

Unfortunately, the same does not quite hold true for the companion work, Prometheus, titled by Liszt Chöre zu Herders entfesseltem Prometheus (Choruses from Herder's Prometheus Unbound). The second version of 1855 is used here, with Richard Pohl's long narrative bridges between Liszt's eight choruses replaced with a condensed German narration patched together from Herder's original; even with the booklet translation at hand, the listener will think these are superfluous. This is a strange choice as a disc mate for the mass; it is not a sacred work, and this fuzzy-sounding 1972 tape definitely does not play back as freshly as the older, Honvéd Ensemble performance. Granted, this is a difficult score and not one of Liszt's more distinguished efforts, despite such tantalizing headings as "Chorus of the Powers of the Nether World." Nevertheless, the Hungarian State Orchestra sounds underpowered and not well coordinated on this date, and likewise the Budapest Chorus sounds sloppy and undisciplined. As to the soloists, toward the end of the "Chorus of the Vintagers" it sounds like the Heimlich maneuver is being applied to one of the baritones -- this should give you some idea as to how well they do. Texts and translations are included, but the booklet could have used some more careful copyediting; for example, István Kis is credited for conducting the Hungarian State Orchestra in the first work, in which it does not appear.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Missa quattuor vocum ad aequales (III; Szekszárd Mass), for male chorus & organ, S. 8ii (LW J5/2)
1 04:08
2 08:03
3 08:37
4 02:35
5 03:08
6 05:48
Chöre zu Herders entfesseltem Prometheus II, for chorus & orchestra, S. 69/2 (LW L8/1)
7 02:24
8 02:41
9 00:41
10 08:29
11 00:13
12 03:21
13 00:49
14 05:57
15 00:37
16 05:59
17 01:02
18 03:36
19 00:17
20 06:07
21 00:44
22 02:56
blue highlight denotes track pick