Wanted to share this fantastic recording of a late-period Franz Liszt setting of the Catholic depiction of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, for choir and piano.  I’ve also heard it with organ, solo piano, and read that he wrote an arrangement for harmonium as well, though the piece itself wasn’t performed until over 40 years after his death.

Liszt, despite a lifetime of celebrity, booze and women, became increasingly religious as he aged, and at one point obtained the semi-official title of “Abbé”, so qualified in his devotion he was actually authorized to perform exorcisms.  (Haven’t read any accounts of those, too bad.)  Fear not, his music never suffered.  In fact, for my money, it only got better, as he dropped the pretense of being a flashy entertainer, and set out straight for the jugular of tonal music.

His melodic lines became sparer, as his harmony expanded.  Pieces such as the ones on this album presented a new kind of divine music, where uplift wasn’t more important than capturing the real sadness at the heart of the subject.  Dutch pianist/conductor Reinbert de Leeuw & the Collegium Vocale Gent perform Via Crucis beautifully, in a warm, intimate recording that feels very much like hearing it performed in a small hall, or cathedral.  In particular, I love the balance between the choir and the piano, because Liszt’s lines are such that piano is never truly *just* accompaniment (in fact, he also wrote a solo piano arrangement).

The thing about late-period Liszt, and Via Crucis in particular, is that no matter how beautiful his harmonies and melodies, the music always returns to a basis of tragedy.  You can’t escape it.  Jesus always goes down.  Those brutally sad choral harmonies at the end of Station XIV on “ave crux” always signify the same loss, death and resignation to the cruel judgment of the cross.  And in them, Liszt isn’t looking for salvation or light at the end of the tunnel; he’s looking for a way to be okay with the pain.  Even if it’s the best a mere human can hope for, it’s fucking depressing.

Now, I’m not religious (and don’t read Latin for that matter), but this stuff hits hard.  Even the solo piano sections, performed masterfully by de Leeuw in the same spare, moody style as he’d done for Satie’s piano music, wring out an intrinsic sadness.  I’m surprised that Via Crucis hasn’t become standard fare in concert halls, and that we haven’t heard it in movies or TV, where the darker shades of grief are needed.  Maybe it’s all just too much.

The other pieces are almost as good.  The gorgeous setting of “Salve Regina” for unaccompanied choir features most of the same harmonic characteristics of Via Crucis, but with a sliver more light.  “Vater unser” is (thankfully) uplifting, and sounds most like what you might hear in one of the hundreds of cathedrals across Europe or America on any given Sunday.  “Ave verum corpus” returns to the darkness, and as with Via Crucis, seems to look for meaning in suffering.  It’s all heavy shit.

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