When it comes to the religious conversion of Franz Liszt, it is hard for me not to think of images from Ken Russell's over-the-top "biopic" Lisztomania. Russell's Liszt, played by rock singer Roger Daltrey, is so governed by carnal passions that he has an extended fantasy scene in which he rides around on a clownishly large phallus. Russell cannot bring himself to treat Liszt's conversion with any seriousness, casting Ringo Starr as Pope Pius IX, for example. The composer's faith was no laughing matter, however, and Alan Walker's very thorough biography has dispelled many of the legends about Liszt (some spread by his former lover Marie d'Agoult, in a book about her life with Liszt, Nelida). That includes Liszt's notorious womanizing, as well as the disputed role of the Catholic Church in scuttling his marriage to Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (see Liszt, Carolyne, and the Vatican: The Story of a Thwarted Marriage).
Liszt, Via crucis / Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, B. Engerer, Accentus, L. Equilbey
(released 2006 / 2008)
Naïve V 5061
CD from ArkivMusic
No one could hear anything but earnest piety in Liszt's odd late sacred work Via crucis, a set of musical scenes to accompany the observation of the Stations of the Cross. Abbé Liszt began the work in Rome, completing it in Budapest in 1879, although it remained unpublished and unknown into the 20th century. Accentus, a French chamber choir known for undertaking all kinds of repertory, performs the version for piano (Liszt also made an arrangement for organ). It is not a great work, by far, but the mixture of Gregorian chant arrangements, Lutheran chorales, unaccompanied Palestrina-like counterpoint tarted up with corrupt harmonies, and arch-Romantic piano character pieces is eclectic, to say the least. The singing on this disc is uniformly pure and lush, in both solo and choral passages. The pianist, Brigitte Engerer, who also performs three movements from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, plays with the same sort of earnestness already observed in the music, where a little more flash could have helped. It is not a must-have recording, but a worthy addition to a distinguished ensemble's discography.
Lisztomania, with Roger Daltrey, dir. Ken Russell
(Probably NSFW, especially if your boss has no sense of humor)
A fascinating 'Revolution' at Center Stage
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