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Christus (1872)

af Franz Liszt

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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)


CD 1: Christmas Oratorio
[1] Introduction [17’45]
[2] Pastorale and Annunciation [8’19]
[3] Stabat Mater speciosa [15’09]
[4] Song of the Shepherds at the manger [15’47]
[5] The Three Kings [13’41]

CD 2: After Epiphany
[1] The Beatitudes [12’46]
[2] The Lord’s Prayer [10’08]
[3] The Foundation of the Church [5’31]
[4] The Miracle [8’17]
[5] The Entry into Jerusalem [14’05]

CD 3: Passion and Resurrection
[1] Tristis est anima mea [11’57]
[2] Stabat Mater dolorosa [30’12]
[3] O filii et filiae [2’18]
[4] Resurrexit [7’18]

Tom Krause, baritone
Benita Valente, soprano
Marjana Lipovšek, mezzo-soprano
Peter Lindroos, tenor

Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

James Conlon

Live recording: 19/20 September 1985, De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Warner Classics, 2004. 3CD. TT 173’13. Liner notes by Raymond McGill. Lyrics (Latin).


By no means is this a bad recording. Indeed, I guess it’s a pretty good introduction to one of Liszt’s greatest and most unjustly neglected works. But I came to it after Dorati (1985) and Rilling (1997), and I found nothing in Conlon to improve my appreciation. Some of Jimmy’s ideas of pacing are strange (e.g. the Adagio in “The Three Kings” is too fast, “The Beatitudes” is too slow), but on the whole he conducts with his usual flair and sensitivity. He is often let down by the singers and the sound, though. Benita Valente, for instance, wins the golden medal for the clumsiest “Annunciation” on record. The rest are better, especially Tom Krause, but some of their ensembles sound a bit under-rehearsed. The sound is very badly balanced. The great orchestral moments in “The Three Kings” and “The Miracle” come off so muffled they must have been recorded from a mile away – or with the orchestra in the proverbial soundproof basement. The dynamic range is virtually non-existent. The choir and the soloists fare a great deal better, but still far from state-of-the-art. It’s hard to believe this performance was recorded in 1985 (probably in preparation for the centenary from Liszt’s death). The sound has nothing like the dynamics and detail of digital recordings. Nevertheless, when offered at a super-bargain price, Conlon’s Christus is not a bad first choice. ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 5, 2017 |
Ferenc Liszt (1811–1886)


Oratorio on the Words of the Holy Bible and the Catholic Liturgy
for Voices, Choir, Organ and Orchestra

CD 1: Christmas Oratorio
[1] Introduction [15’48’’]
[2] Pastorale and Herald Angel’s Song [8’59’’]
[3] Stabat Mater speciosa [15’20’’]
[4] Pastoral Music at the Manger [12’00’’]
[5] March of the Magi [15’47’’]

CD 2: After Epiphany
[1] The Beatitudes [10’20’’]
[2] The Lord’s Prayer [9’28’’]
[3] The founding of the Church [5’06’’]
[4] The Miracle [9’01’’]
[5] Ride into Jerusalem [13’58’’]

CD 3: Passion and Resurrection
[1] Tristis est anima mea [14’35’’]
[2] Stabat Mater dolorosa [38’42’’]
[3] O filii et filiae [3’08’’]
[4] Resurrexit [6’40’’]

Sándor Sólyom-Nagy, baritone
Veronika Kincses, soprano
Klára Takács, mezzosoprano
János B. Nagy, tenor
Laszló Polgár, bass

Hungarian Radio and Television Chorus
Hungarian State Orchestra
Nyíregyhaza Children’s Chorus

Antal Doráti

Recorded: September 1985.

Hungaroton, 1994. 3CD. 67’53’’+47’53’’+63’05’’. Liner notes by Ferenc Bonis. Lyrics (Lat+Eng+Ger+Fr).


So far as I know, there are five complete studio recordings of Christus in existence, if not in print. The only one I have never heard – but would love to – is by James Conlon with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, probably recorded in the mid-1980s. Conlon recorded with the same forces and at the same time stirring, if sonically compromised, accounts of the Faust and Dante Symphonies. He is a compelling Lisztian of rare dedication and his Christus must be quite something to hear.

The two recordings I find fine enough to own are this one by Doráti and the one by Rilling (1997). They make for an interesting study of contrasts. The only thing they have in common is the indifferent sound (slightly fuller and more natural in Doráti’s case). Otherwise they could hardly have been more different. Rilling is faster and more dramatic; on the whole he takes some 16-17 minutes less. Doráti is considerably slower. This is fine in the more contemplative moments, such as the pastoral interludes and “Stabat Mater speciosa” in the first part. But in the more dramatic episodes, notably “March of the Magi”, “The Miracle” and “Stabat Mater dolorosa”, there is some loss of tension. Nevertheless, though he can be dangerously slow, Dorati is a fine and sensitive musician well worth the time of anybody seriously interested in Christus. I would say Rilling has the edge on the singers and the chorus (better voices, more accurate diction), but the Hungarian cast is excellent as well, especially Sólyom-Nagy who sounds truly divine in “The Beatitudes” and “Tristis est anima mea”.

The other two recordings have their good points, but for different reasons I prefer neither of them to Rilling or Doráti.

The recording conducted by Miklós Forrai, possibly the first complete one ever, was made for Hungaroton in 1971. It is a fine all-Hungarian production featuring the same Jesus (Sándor Sólyom-Nagy), naturally in fresher voice, who sang for Doráti 14 years later. But the sound is dimmer and, most annoyingly, a speaker is employed for the several quotations from the Bible which Liszt included in the score (apart from the sung texts, of course). There is no reason to suppose that Liszt wanted these words recited during performance; he almost certainly put them there to help the conductor with the proper mood. Some people find such recitations moving, revealing, etc. I find them annoying.[1]

The recording conducted by Roman Kofman for MDG is the newest (2005) and the most disappointing of all. Neither the slack conducting nor the crude singing can hold a candle to Forrai, Doráti or Rilling. The sound isn’t great shakes, either. I suppose it is a good introduction to Christus, and one can hardly afford to be choosy about so under-recorded a work, but don’t make it your only meeting with this mighty oratorio.

The presentation of this 1994 Hungaroton CD release is handsomely done. The text is complete and in four different languages. The long essay by Ferenc Bonis is not terribly well-written, but it does provide extensive biographical background and history of composition, if little insight into the music. One exception is a quotation from Lina Ramann’s study of Christus which should be better known. Writing of “The Beatitudes”, she extends the universal character of its message to the whole work:

...They give expression to an idea which has been already prepared for by the Herald Angel’s Song in Part I. These words, listing the ways to salvation, at the same time erase the differences between denominations. They say: blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. And they do not say: ‘Blessed are the Catholics’, not ‘Blessed are the Protestants’, nor even ‘Blessed are the Christians’. In the words of the Beatitudes the barriers that divide the denominations collapse – which are only freaks of these revelations, created by posterity – and Christianity appears in its original purity and justice. This forms the centre of Liszt’s work, towards which each section radiates; with this, the work rises into a sphere in which religion, in the most elevated sense of the term, is a comprehensive and unifying, not a dividing and separating force.

The message of the Beatitudes... lifts the work above all limited humanity, endowing it with a
universal character and the true humanism in whose sign Christians, Jews, pagans, or whatever they may be called, may all find each other.

Lina Ramann (1833–1912) was, of course, the first “official” biographer of Franz Liszt. Despite his notorious reluctance in such matters, Liszt regularly replied to questionnaires sent by her and even included Nuremberg (where she lived) in his hectic itinerary in order to grant her personal interviews. She was present on May 29, 1873, at the Herder Church, Weimar, when Liszt conducted the world premiere of Christus. When she asked the composer for permission to write an essay on the work, Liszt’s reply was quite terse: since the score was now published, he could not prevent her.[2] Her brochure appeared on the next year and may well be her best bid for immortality, if anything more important than her rather unreliable (mostly thanks to Carolyne) biography. It’s not known whether Liszt ever read her essay or, if he did, what he thought of it, but I think this is no reason to dismiss Ramann’s noble words about “The Beatitudes”.

[1] Forrai seems to have written the original liner notes to this recording, including the track-by-track analysis. Brilliant Classics took his essay and, without anything so trivial as acknowledgment, reprinted it in the booklet of their reissue of Rilling’s recording!
[2] Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861–1886, Cornell University Press [1997], p. 275. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 21, 2017 |
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)


Oratorio on the Words of the Holy Bible and the Catholic Liturgy
for Soloists, Choir and Orchestra

CD 1: Christmas Oratorio
[1] Introduction [14’18]
[2] Pastorale and Herald Angel’s Song [6’55]
[3] Stabat Mater speciosa [10’43]
[4] Pastoral Music at the Manger [13’21]
[5] March of the Magi [14’31]

CD 2: After Epiphany
[1] The Beatitudes [10’57]
[2] The Lord’s Prayer [7’44]
[3] The founding of the Church [5’28]
[4] The Miracle [8’49]
[5] Ride into Jerusalem [13’58]

CD 3: Passion and Resurrection
[1] Tristis est anima mea [14’02]
[2] Stabat Mater dolorosa [32’40]
[3] O filii et filiae [1’41]
[4] Resurrexit [5’25]

Henriette Bonde-Hansen, soprano
Iris Vermillion, mezzo soprano/alto
Michael Schade, tenor
Andreas Schmidt, bass

Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Krakauer Kammerchor
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart

Helmuth Rilling

Recorded: 15/16 February 1997, Beethovensaal Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany.

Brilliant Classics, n.d. 3CD. 60’12+47’29+54’10. Anonymous liner notes. Lyrics (Lat+Ger).


The oratorio Christus, together with the Sonata in B minor and the Faust Symphony, is widely regarded as the pinnacle in the long and varied creative life of Franz Liszt. The praise lavished on it is one of the most consistent themes (without much transformation) in the Lisztian literature.

Leslie Howard called it “probably his finest work”, overall greater than the Sonata or the Faust Symphony.[1] Sacheverell Sitwell conceded that “isolated sections out of its huge length must be among the most important things in all his contribution to music”, although he was very wide of the mark that the work takes “some four and a half hours” in performance.[2] Michael Saffle flatly called it “one of Liszt’s masterpieces”, and though he went on, somewhat surprisingly, to deem it “second only among his sacred compositions to the Gran Mass in grandeur of conception, details of execution, and overall intellectual and emotional conviction”, he at least agreed that Christus is “far more stylistically and expressively variegated”.[3] Humphrey Searle called it a “patchy work”, yet one that “does represent a self-summing-up of the kind that we find in the piano sonata and the first movement of the Faust Symphony”.[4] Alan Walker knew that even a full-scale biography is no place for extensive musical analysis, but he still spent several pages on Christus and praised the “superior orchestration” and Liszt’s masterful handling of the large-scale forces and the “rich tapestry of sound”.[5]

Despite this unanimous and hardly qualified praise, at least for a work by Liszt, Christus is seldom performed or even recorded. There are probably two major reasons for that. First, most people don’t even know that Liszt composed a sizable body of choral works, including two monumental oratorios, four masses, a requiem and quite a few smaller settings of religious texts. Second, a complete performance, not to mention recording, of Christus must be expensive to produce and, one must admit, few people would sit through all three hours of it. Things have changed but little since Roger Collet wrote in 1970:

...Christus has had few performances in any country, even in part. It is as if musicians and critics had tacitly agreed to pre-judge the work and dismiss it. If this is true, it is a major critical blunder.[6]

I happen to be one of the exceptions who can actually stand the whole of Christus. The more I listen to it, the more I am surprised how well the whole thing holds together. I think it was the complex history of composition rather than any musical arguments that prompted Searle to describe the work as “patchy”. Most of the oratorio was composed between 1863 and 1866 in Rome, but some movements date back to the mid-1850s in Weimar and some were added for the first publication in 1872. Nevertheless, the oratorio flows smoothly and builds inexorably to its grand climax in the third part.

The structure of Christus is certainly odd. Instead of telling the story of Jesus, or at least part of it as Bach did in Matthäus-Passion, Liszt chose to illustrate with music some of its crucial moments. He himself selected the relevant passages from the Bible and from Catholic hymns. The final result is actually a pretty good story, not the least remarkable thing about it being that it’s just as much about Christ as it is about his mother. But Liszt, as always in his program music, did not aim at telling a story. He wanted to convey his personal vision of Christ in a manner no music-less work can. And he did.

The music is extraordinary for a number of reasons. It covers a vast range from simple plainchant to complex choral writing, from sophisticated instrumental movements to overwhelmingly vocal ones, and from the greatest restraint to the mightiest rhetorical sweep. It makes very little use of the so-called transformation of themes, so often encountered in Liszt’s works. Perhaps most amazing of all, there are no lapses of inspiration as one would expect in so long and complex a work. Liszt spent a lot of time and effort on it. Christus must have meant a great deal to him. And it shows.

Three of the 14 movements are entirely orchestral, all of them in the first part. “Introduction” and “Pastoral Music at the Manger” are delicately scored evocations of the pastoral atmosphere that surrounds the birth of Christ. “March of the Magi” is the standout. This is sometimes played separately in the concert hall and, if well performed (which is seldom), it is a powerful tone poem. It begins with inauspicious jauntiness, but it changes completely as soon as the Magi see their guiding star. One of Liszt’s most beautiful themes marks this moment. Then follow a central adagio section which represents, as made clear in the score, the Magi offering gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant and, after speed and volume increase, a grand finale when the Magi are overcome by their awestruck amazement. “It is sad to have to report”, Leslie Howard wrote in 1991, “that most orchestral performances of this movement on record miss this mighty transformation of mood and pace altogether.”[7] I wonder if he later included this performance among the exceptions. I would.

Ten of the other eleven movements include the choir. Only four of them are entirely choral, “Stabat Mater speciosa”, a ravishing setting of “Lord’s Prayer” (Pater noster), the highly dramatic “The founding of the Church” and the brief Easter hymn “O filii et filiae”, but the choir is an essential part of the other six movements as well. It is particularly effective in the most jubilant sections, “The Ride into Jerusalem” and the final, fugal “Resurrection”. Sometimes it is skilfully used to cover some “defects”. For instance, “The founding of the Church” contains the only quotation from John (21: 16-17) in the whole work. This also happens to be the only lyrics which I find somewhat incongruous with the rest of the movement. But the words are set to music with such choral splendour that it’s hard to pay attention to their meaning.

Jesus appears as a baritone only three times in the whole work. But what appearances these are! The shortest one is in “The Miracle” where Liszt conjures an orchestral storm every bit as terrifying as Beethoven’s in the Pastoral Symphony or Rossini’s in the William Tell Overture. When the frightened disciples ask Jesus to save them, the Saviour chides them for their lack of faith (Matthew 8: 25-26). Then he calms the storm with sublime music. “Beatitudes” is based on a short fragment from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-10) and beautifully rendered as a dialogue with the choir. “Tristis est anima mea” is the grief-stricken prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 38-39) and, as so much from this oratorio, one of the finest things Liszt ever did. A turbulent middle section is strikingly reminiscent of the symphonic poem Hamlet, composed in 1858 but not first performed until 1876. It is perfectly appropriate in both cases. No words can convey anguish quite so vividly.

The two movements dedicated to Mary could not have been more different. “Stabat Mater speciosa” is a contemplative choral piece sung almost a cappella (with organ only) and dedicated to the rather happy childhood of Christ. “Stabat Mater dolorosa” is by far the longest and by common consent the greatest part of the oratorio. Here Liszt merged choir, orchestra and solo voices more successfully than in any other of his works, including his other mammoth oratorio, St Elisabeth (which is a very different concept anyway). The text is brutal, describing Mary’s suffering while “she beneath beholds the pangs / of her dying glorious Son”, and the music does it full justice. This choral symphony, as it were, can also be performed separately in the concert hall, although it works infinitely better as climax of the oratorio. If the resurrection sounds perfunctory after that, it is because Liszt intended it that way. He well knew that Christ’s suffering is the crux of the matter.

I know of five recordings of Christus. I have heard four of them. I own two. This one is, on the whole, my favourite. Helmuth Rilling is best-known as a Bach specialist, but his brisk pace and dramatic drive work marvellously in Liszt. He is very sensitive to the haunting harmonies, melodies and orchestrations that abound in these glorious 160 minutes. Both the soloists and the choir are beyond reproach. It’s difficult imagine singing that combines better perfect diction with perfect musicianship. My only quibble is the sound. It is clean enough and with a decent dynamic range, but rather arid and flat.

The original Hänssler edition can still be found reasonably priced, both new and second-hand, but this Brilliant reissue is a fine alternative. Only German translation of the original Latin is given, but the liner notes, besides a decent history of composition, also contain a track-by-track “synopsis” where most of the lyrics are freely translated into English. This is quite good enough if your Latin (or German) is a little rusty.

The last word about Christus belongs to Humphrey Searle. To continue his now more than 60-years-old quote used above:

...Liszt combines his varied elements, ranging from Gregorian plain-chant to romantic and dramatic orchestral colour, with consummate mastery, and throughout the work one feels that he sincerely meant every note of it. It is certainly the most successful of his larger choral works, and deserves to be revived.

[1] Leslie Howard, Introduction to Complete Piano Music, 99CDs, Hyperion, 2011, pp. 28, 30.
[2] Sacheverell Sitwell, Liszt [1955, rev. edn.], Dover, 1967, p. 234.
[3] Ben Arnold, ed., Liszt Companion, Greenwood, 2002, p. 349.
[4] Humphrey Searle, The Music of Liszt, 2nd rev. edn., Dover, 1966, p. 107.
[5] Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861–1886, Cornell University Press [1997], p. 260.
[6] Alan Walker, ed., Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music, Barrie and Jenkins, 1970, pp. 327-8.
[7] Leslie Howard, liner notes, Complete Piano Music, Vol. 14, Hyperion, 1991. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 21, 2017 |
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