Notes and Editorial Reviews
With the certainty of offending fans of Liszt's choral music, I have to say that his sacred works have not aged well. Observers, both contemporaries of the composer and in today's era, commonly comment on the boldness of the harmonies, the refined references to Palestrina and to Gregorian chant, and to the works' fervent expressive character. Indeed, these are undeniably personal creations born of Liszt's apparent deep religious faith (the recording's liner notes go to some length to make this point), but the style--self-consciously solemn, weighty, serious--is at once inward and detached, staunchly static and imposing as a gothic or baroque cathedral. There's nothing essentially wrong with this, yet a little goes a long way, and presenting an entire program of these works, as sensible as it may seem as a celebration of the composer's 200th birthday, may not be the best way to impress new listeners.
In the slow-moving tempos and harmonic rhythms as well as through the often dense textures we encounter the seriousness of Liszt's regard for the texts he sets, but as with most composers whose sensibility is not inherently or intuitively vocal, the lines are not "singing" lines; they are labored and, with a few exceptions, rather generic. While the music is certainly not free from profound emotional content, the overall tone is serious; joy is difficult to find. Liszt provides no sure melodic handles (except perhaps in the Ave Maria) nor does the harmony, for its occasional odd turn, lead us very eagerly and happily--or even curiously--to the kinds of stirring moments that make us return--and want to sing the music ourselves. Whatever exciting, newly challenging compositional features these pieces may have offered in their day come off in ours as merely overwrought.
And this kind of writing tends to engender a complementary manner of singing, stylized and overly earnest, that only reflects the music's lack of inherent subtlety. Although these performances in most aspects maintain a more refined approach, marked by characteristic sincerity and profound reverence for the meaning of the texts, this choir (as I've mentioned before) favors a sound defined by a substantial vibrato that in some ways oddly enhances Liszt's harmonies while more often creating a kind of intonational ambiguity that's especially notable in the sections of the Missa Choralis for the small group of soloists.
The choir's particular sound works best in the Slavic-like Pater Noster, and in the Ave Maria, however the combination of the consistently large vocal vibrato and the very resonant church acoustic results in an ensemble quality that favors blend over detail. I suppose you could argue that this is not inappropriate for these scores, which are long on homophony and short on melodic development and contrast. Given that Liszt's sacred choral music is not all that popular these days, it's rare to find a recorded program like this, so for specialists and fans of late-Romantic church music, it's a welcome addition to the catalog.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com