LISZT Missa Choralis. Via Crucis
Without in any way wishing to belittle his much-vaunted devotion to the Church and its music, I have to confess that Liszt’s sacred music has very similar effects on me as heavy lunchtime drinking: an immediate desire to fall asleep and a fervent promise (invariably broken) never to indulge in it again. John Steane once memorably suggested in his review (10/89) of two recordings of the Via crucis that there may be ‘readers who have despaired of staying awake let alone listening to the work with pleasure’. It has taken more than a decade, but now, for me as for those despairing readers, succour is at hand.
Hyperion, ever eager to force us to revise our opinions of ill-favoured repertoire, has issued a disc which not only challenges preconceptions nurtured on release after release of well-meant but uninspired Liszt performances, but also obliges us to take this music seriously as much for its musical message as for its religious inspiration. And by any definition that makes this a disc-in-a-million. Matthew Best gives the music’s every moment of excitement its full impact (just listen to that stunning passage after 1'02'' of the Sanctus in the Missa choralis – now I know where Frank Martin got the idea from in his own Mass – and the heart-stopping ‘Crucifige’ as Jesus is nailed to the cross in Via crucis), and studiously avoids the pitfalls of over-sentimentality so often associated with performances of Liszt’s sacred music (again listen to the ethereal ending of the ‘Benedictus’).
Best is, as ever, supported in his quest to convert us all to Liszt’s view of the sacred by the immaculate, full-toned, endlessly responsive and unfailingly musical Corydon Singers and some appropriately unpretentious solo voices. Thomas Trotter’s organ accompaniment to the Missa choralis is suitably discreet but in the Via crucis he comes into his own, injecting necessary fire and passion into a work which, while it will never join me out of choice on a desert island, now appears a far more tantalising companion. This disc makes essential listening in 2001, the 190th anniversary of Liszt’s birth.'