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Hyperion Records

CDA67445 - Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: January 2004
Total duration: 83 minutes 18 seconds


CLASSICAL CDs OF THE YEAR 2004 (The Daily Telegraph)

'This is a fine recital, with a recording to match' (BBC Music Magazine)

Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Invocation  [7'27]
Ave Maria  [5'57]
Pensée des morts  [13'47]
Pater noster  [2'35]
Funérailles  [12'00]
Cantique d'amour  [6'07]

One of Liszt’s most personal and confessional piano cycles, the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (composed between 1846 and 1851) contains two of his best-loved masterpieces – the serenely contemplative ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ and the heroic elegy ‘Funérailles’. This outstanding recording makes a much-needed case for the collection as a whole, setting these well-known works in their wider spiritual context. Important works such as ‘Pensée des morts’ (an extraordinarily dark meditation on the oft-visited subject of death) and ‘Cantique d’amour’ (one of Liszt’s most beautifully expressive reveries) are revealed, as are rarely heard transcriptions of Liszt’s own sacred choral works.

Steven Osborne captures the music’s spiritual essence to perfection, further demonstrating his affinity with music of mystical contemplation, a quality so widely acclaimed in his superb recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The sincerity of Liszt’s religious convictions has long been questioned, usually by those who doubt the sincerity of his music. For many, Liszt’s catholicism sits uneasily with his image as a man of the world, a man for whom sensual pleasure – drinking, smoking, enjoying the attention lavished upon him by his adoring public, not least his many female admirers – was seemingly at the core of his being. Yet to characterize even the young Liszt as a womanizing socialite, a man of dubious morals and ulterior motives, would be to misrepresent and misunderstand him. It is true that Liszt had some difficulty reconciling his spiritual calling with desires of the flesh (although he was hardly alone in that): he eloped with a married woman, the Countesse Marie d’Agoult; he fell out with his good friend Chopin after using his apartment for an encounter with Marie Pleyel; he later became involved with a notorious erotic dancer, Lola Montez. Yet if one reads Liszt’s passionate, occasionally forlorn letters to Marie d’Agoult from the early 1830s, especially those written during their enforced apartness, one does not see a man who was intent on enjoying his eligible-bachelor status. This was a young man who on having his first love affair thwarted at the age of seventeen spent days prostrate on the flagstones of St-Vincent-de-Paul, who in his eventual elopement with the Countesse d’Agoult escaped the hullabaloo of Paris for the peaceful surroundings of the Swiss Alps, and who, by the age of thirty-five, rejected his itinerant life as the world’s most famous virtuoso pianist – with its concomitant temptations and glamorous stardom, and its exhausting and disruptive rootlessness – in favour of a quieter and more settled existence in the provincial town of Weimar. There, with his long-term companion Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, Liszt lived and worked for thirteen years, composing many of his most important works.

It was in Weimar that Liszt put together his collection of ten religiously inspired pieces, of greatly varied scope, under the collective title Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, mostly composed between 1845 and 1851. Like so many works that Liszt published during his time in Weimar, this collection incorporates earlier material. In 1834 Liszt had composed a single piece which he called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, an extraordinary work inspired by and named after a collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), and he extensively revised this piece as Pensée des morts, the fourth piece in the later collection. With the original 1834 piece (and again in the collection) Liszt quotes Lamartine’s preface to the poems, where he describes those meditative souls ‘who are elevated ineluctably by solitude and contemplation toward infinite ideas, that is, toward religion; all their thoughts are converted into rapture and into prayer, all their existence is a mute hymn to the Divinity and to hope’. This is one of Liszt’s most important early works, striking in its improvisatory sense of spontaneous creation, its initial lack of time and key signatures, its extraordinary chromatic and augmented harmonies, its proto-Bartókian rhythmic complexities and irregular metre. This early Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is a dramatic example of the young Liszt’s spiritual soul-searching, and of the heart-on-sleeve exuberance of his religious commitment. Some commentators (notably Humphrey Searle) consider some of its daring originality and revolutionary fervour to be lost in Pensée des morts; certainly the two pieces are quite separate entities, and the early work is well worth exploring in its own right.

As early as 1840 Liszt had the idea of compiling a collection of works inspired by Lamartine under the umbrella title Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. By 1847 a complete collection had been put together, although it was never published, containing earlier versions of many of the pieces found in the final collection, as well as four works that Liszt later dropped (to be replaced by three others). Three of the rejected pieces are relatively slight Hymnes, but the most interesting omission is the Litanies de Marie, which was until recently thought to be unfinished. This work seems to have arisen out of a fusion of Liszt’s veneration of the Virgin Mary and his love for Marie d’Agoult, and this was surely the reason he dropped the piece. Certainly the central thrust of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses changed direction as Liszt became less involved with Marie (they went their separate ways in 1844, although as the mother of his three children they were still in regular contact) and met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847; it is no coincidence that in place of Litanies de Marie in the final collecion is a love-song for Carolyne, Cantique d’amour. The other major addition to the final set is Funérailles, which like Cantique d’amour has nothing to do with Lamartine.

The definitive collection Harmonies poétiques et religieuses was published by Kistner in 1853. It contains two of Liszt’s greatest works (Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and Funérailles); two under-performed masterpieces (Pensée des morts and Cantique d’amour); four transcriptions of choral pieces, one after a work mistakenly attributed by Liszt to Palestrina (the Miserere) and three after works Liszt composed in the 1840s (Ave Maria, Pater noster and Hymne de l’Enfant à son réveil); and two works that have been undeservedly neglected (Invocation and No 9, Andante lagrimoso). The collection is dedicated to Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, whose stimulating intelligence and spirituality were a guiding influence throughout the remainder of Liszt’s life. This collection of pieces meant a lot to Liszt; the music may occasionally veer dangerously close to stifling sentimentality, but the sincerity with which Liszt felt these deeply personal confessions, ranging from serene contemplation to heroic elegy, leaves a lasting and ultimately uplifting impression. Long after retiring from public performance, Liszt enjoyed playing these pieces to gatherings of friends, and they were among his own works that remained firmly ingrained in both his mind and his fingers.

The first piece, Invocation, is prefaced by Lamartine (‘Rise, voice of my soul, / With the dawn, with the night!’). A joyous hymn in E major (a tonality frequently visited by Liszt for works of this kind), this piece exudes optimism and combines bold chorale-like passages with grandiose pianistic gestures. The following Ave Maria is a transcription of one of several settings by Liszt (there are six versions for piano alone), this one written for four voices and organ in about 1852 (which makes it the latest piece Liszt decided to include in the set). The transcription, transposing the choral version up a semitone from A major to B flat, is a faithful rendition, and although the frequently arpeggiated chords can so easily sound kitsch in the wrong hands, the music has a touching reverential simplicity.

With the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude we encounter one of Liszt’s most important masterpieces. Prefaced once more by Lamartine (beginning ‘Whence comes, O God, this peace which overwhelms me? / Whence comes its faith with which my heart overflows?’), this music is at once voluptuous and profoundly serene, its sustained tranquility capturing a world of mystical contemplation that is almost unique in nineteenth-century piano music; only Beethoven in his final years achieved something similar, as, much later, did Franck and Messiaen (notably in Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus). The work unfolds a straightforward tertiary structure, with an added coda whose sublime simplicity and overwhelming power remind us of the closing section of Liszt’s B minor Sonata. Here Liszt shows that, like Beethoven, he was capable of achieving the most elevated effect with the greatest simplicity of utterance. Confounding popular and banal stereotypes, this work reveals Liszt at his most intimately confidential. ‘Go tell your sins to the piano’, the Pope once exclaimed to the composer; we are perpetually grateful that Liszt’s soul was so generously and movingly confessional.

As we have seen, Pensée des morts is a revision of the early Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, but it also recalls a section of another work dating from the same period, the huge and not quite completed De profundis for piano and orchestra (1834–5), S691. Pensée des morts is one of Liszt’s most darkly introspective and at times manically insistent creations. After the foreboding, rhythmically unstable opening (mostly in 5/4 interspersed with 7/4), there is an intensification of texture, dynamic and chromaticism that ultimately leads to a stark utterance of Psalm 130, with the words to ‘De profundis’ written in the score above the hammered fortissimo chords. Where else in nineteenth-century piano literature does one find such a literal equivalent to the spoken word? What follows is no less extraordinary: a haunting reference to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ C sharp minor Piano Sonata, Op 27 No 2 (it is hard to imagine that the similarity was an accident, even less that Liszt was oblivious to the blatant intertextuality), which leads to an extended and unsettled peroration.

The Pater noster and the Hymne de l’Enfant à son réveil were both originally choral pieces. Like so many of Liszt’s sacred choral works both have been largely ignored, and it is ironic that it is these relatively literal piano arrangements – and their association with the more illustrious companions in this cycle – that prevent them from being completely forgotten. Liszt composed two choral versions of the Pater noster; the one transcribed here was written in 1846 in four parts with organ accompaniment. The transcription, finalized in 1851, is straightforward in its unadorned monophonic simplicity, and as was his practice Liszt includes the text with the music. The Hymne de l’Enfant à son réveil is of more substantial scope, an arrangement of a work for female voices with piano and harp, to text by Lamartine, composed in about 1845.

Funérailles, along with the Bénédiction, is the other great work of this collection to have established itself in the core repertoire. A monumental (in both senses) and heroic elegy, subtitled ‘Octobre 1849’, this is a magnificent tribute to the memory of those who died in the failed Hungarian uprising in that month (including acquaintances of Liszt’s), specifically the Hungarian prime minister Lajos Batthyány and thirteen of his generals, whose mass execution on 6 October 1849 seems to have been the catalyst for the composition. Coincidentally, this was also the month that Chopin died, and it soon became an established Romantic fiction that Funérailles was Liszt’s musical memorial to the Pole, an idea reinforced by the apparent reference in the work’s fourth section to the rotating left-hand octaves of Chopin’s A flat major Polonaise Op 53. Perhaps Liszt, whether consciously or subconsciously, threaded in this reference as a complementary tribute to his respected friend and peer. Either way, Liszt was quite explicit about the Hungarian origin of the work, and indeed the title of the first sketch was ‘Magyar’. From the opening tolling bells, resonating from the depths of the instrument’s range, to the succeeding minor-key lament and major-key poignancy, this is a work of almost palpable anguish and utmost nobility. The culmination of the octave storm Liszt builds is achieved without any over-inflated bombast; rhetorical and dramatic gesture is a key part of Liszt’s musical language, and in Funérailles such physicality brings a powerful immediacy to the music’s emotional force.

The Miserere d’après Palestrina is based on a melody from a motet that Liszt heard at the Sistine Chapel, which contrary to Liszt’s understanding had nothing to do with Palestrina. Liszt elaborates the melody with pianissimo tremolandos followed by fortissimo sweeping arpeggios, which rather smother the simple original line. The ninth piece in the collection, without a title but marked Andante lagrimoso, is prefaced by a poem by Lamartine entitled ‘Une larme ou consolation’ (beginning ‘Fall, silent tears, / On a soil without pity, / No more between pious hands, / Nor on the bosom of friendship!’). This fine work has been overshadowed, yet its atmosphere of tragic stillness, its exquisite delicacy – rarely rising above pianissimo – and subtlely shifting chromaticism all combine to create a work of poignant understatement. The mood of quiet reflection continues into the last piece, Cantique d’amour, although this inexplicably neglected work has a far greater expressive reach. It returns us to the key (E major) and textural fabric (the use of repeated chords to flesh out the harmonic outline) of the opening Invocation, whose ultimately optimistic hymn-like quality it also shares.

Tim Parry © 2004

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