Saturday, June 9, 2012

Liszt's oratorio "Christus" performed at the 2012 Israel Festival

The Israeli premiere of Franz Liszt’s oratorio “Christus” took place June 5th in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. With the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoca (supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, Tel Aviv), the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA and soloists under the baton of Meir Minsky, it was one of the more prominent events of the 2012 Israel Festival.

Considered by most a composer of piano music, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) possessed genius that extended well beyond the piano: his oeuvre of 1000 works covered most genres. Prior to his composing “Christus”, he composed “The Legend of St. Elisabeth” around 1854. “Christus”, however, has remained his most important sacred work. Despite his roller-coaster personal life, Franz Liszt was a deeply religious man, joining the Franciscan order in 1865, taking the name Abbé Liszt. He composed “Christus” between 1859 and 1863 to a libretto drawn from the Bible, Catholic liturgy and various medieval hymns. Except for brief passages in “Das Wunder” (The Wonder) and “Tristis est anima mea” (Sad is My Soul), where the soloist portrays the figure of Christ, the soloists do not represent individuals. There are also no recitatives. Not performed frequently enough, the work displays the composer’s fine orchestral- and choral writing and constitutes a major Romantic sacred work. A massive three-part celebration of the life and works of Christ, the oratorio, calling for large forces, is as distinctive in its orchestral movements as it is as a choral work. Even by 19th century standards, the forces required for “Christus” are exceptional: double winds with cor anglais, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tubular bells, harp and harmonium.

“Christus” comprises symphonic-type movements (until “Christus”, no oratorio had contained whole instrumental movements), large choral/orchestral movements, a cappella movements and more intimate, prayerful sections accompanied by organ. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra gave a splendid performance, its wind sections excelling collectively and in solos, the Transylvania State Philharmonia Choir of Cluj-Napoca as compelling in its precise, dramatic expression as in the sensitive singing of meditative sections – such as the “Pater Noster”. The four splendid vocal soloists, all opera singers performing widely in Europe, proved well suited to the musical demands of the work and its orchestral dimensions. For the first half of the performance, soloists soprano Talia Or (Israel), tenor George Oniani (Georgia) and bass-baritone Roman Trekel (Germany) sang from the balcony, moving down to the stage and joined by mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion (Israel) after intermission.

Not your mainstream oratorio, and not familiar to many of the festival-goers attending the Jerusalem concert, the listener needed to allow the work to transport him into the pace of its musical language and rhetoric; once achieved, the rewards were then numerous. There being no “story”, the sequence of aural images invited the listener to create his own “tableaux” of the story.

There were many high moments in the Israel Festival performance…too many to mention here. Roman Trekel’s performance, for example, of the chromatic (at times atonal) “Tristis est anima mea” was convincing and soul-searching. The final chorus, the fugal “Resurrexit” also had the audience sitting at the edge of its seats, with the Cluj singers and orchestra ringing out triumphant. But the performance was no less effective in movements of pared-down textures, these punctuating the work’s grandness to reveal Liszt’s more personal message of the divinity of love. Writing “Christus” in Rome, Liszt, having “solved the greater part of the Symphony problem”, was now involved in solving the “Oratorio problem…to which I must sacrifice everything else”. The composer, aware of the shifts of the cultural climate of his time, wrote “When and where [Christus] will ever be heard is of no importance to me.” The critics did indeed reject the work, Liszt’s aesthetic and his vision of the future. Perhaps “Christus” can now claim the place in concert repertoire denied it for much too long. The Jerusalem performance would certainly justify that.

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