Franz Liszt’s 200th birthday was celebrated at St. Cecilia Parish in the Back Bay in performances by organist Balint Karosi and Canto Armonico, Cheryl Ryder, conducting. The concert on October 22 also honored the rededication of the 1999 Smith & Gilbert Organ. Karosi has made a name for himself in the Boston area as the organist of exceptional artistry and creativity, especially in playing the music of J. S. Bach and as an improviser who can incorporate complex counterpoint. In this program, he bore his true native colors, championing the transcendental Romanticism of his fellow countryman, Franz Liszt. Canto Armonico is a local chamber choir of sixteen normally conducted by Simon Carrington. Its clean and straight early-music sound was perfectly suited to the liturgical repertoire that alternated with organ works to create an otherworldly effect. Although the performance was tarnished by occasional vocal imperfections and a somewhat out-of-tune organ, it transported the listener to a transcendent and contemplative realm.
Karosi addressed the audience with a prepared speech in which he addressed Liszt’s legacy today. “Liszt still surprises and fascinates audiences around the world, and he has no tolerance for dogma.” He assured the audience that “this concert will take us from the ninth circle of hell to the light of heaven.” The promise was kept.
The “Prelude” from the oratorio, The Legend of Holy Elizabeth, in transcription for organ, opened the program and foreshadowed the chiaroscuro and the logic of the rest of the evening. A set of four works for organ and voices followed, introducing the audience to the composer’s deeply cherished world of Roman Catholic spirituality. The texts are mostly well known, “Ave Maria,” “Sancta Caecilia,” “O Salutaris Hostia,” and “The Beatitudes,” but it was the seamless balance achieved between choir and organ accompaniment that is a rarity. Clare McNamara’s creamy alto voice was welcome in the piece dedicated to the patroness of music. Jonas Budris’s rich baritone color as the voice of Jesus seemed to negate the fact that he is in fact a tenor. Canto Armonico exercised a kind of subtle restraint throughout the evening that painted a romantic world of devotion that must have characterized the Cecilian movement of the 19th century, a sort of iconostasis that stood alongside the better-known dramatic spectacle of Lisztian virtuosity.
Karosi effectively framed the first half as a musical and topological triptych by closing the first half with a second transcription of an orchestral work for organ, “Prelude, Fugue and Magnificat.” The work is extracted from Lizst’s Dante Symphony and the transcription had been carried out under the careful watch of the composer, as had been the first piece of the program. As Karosi’s program notes claim, “The organ version starts in the [sic] Purgatorio with the soaring recitativo of souls that do not recognize they are in darkness. The fugue represents a transpiercing light that gradually grows into the gleaming Magnificat, and eternal light.” His organ registrations skillfully made the ascent, fully utilizing the tonal resources of this organ. Liszt avoided anything trite and superficial in the two Christmas choral pieces, “Christ is Born,” and “O Holy Night,” that followed. Church musicians take note: the latter would make a welcome substitute in church services for the worn-out setting by Adolphe Adam.
The Hungarian composer’s “Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine,” for organ is a fantastical appropriation of two emblematically Catholic choral pieces, Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” and Allegri’s “Miserere.” They were first sung by Canto Armonico apparently to make the musical sources of the organ work explicit. The Mozart was utter perfection, but the singers hit a bump in the road with the Allegri, saving the performance with stylishly French Baroque ornaments at the cadences. “Evocation” is orchestral in concept, particularly with its opening duo for double basses. It brought to mind César Franck and his harmonic progressions and overall symphonic conception of the organ. Lizst refers less directly to Allegri with its static harmonies, but actually inserts the Mozart, whole and intact; Karosi treats it with flutes and a tremulant, a veritable flötenuhr.
The final choral set of three pieces was for unmixed voices. It featured a work for female choir and organ, “Tantum Ergo,” and two for male choir and organ, “Anima Christi” and “Tu es Petrus.” Lizst had apparently written the first piece as an 11-year-old under the tutelage of Salieri; it had been lost, but he later rewrote it from memory. Its simplicity contrasted with the chromaticism and episodic nature of “Anima Christi” (“Soul of Christ”). The third piece refers to Peter, and in this case Pope Leo XIII, as the title would suggest, but was extracted from the composer’s oratorio, Christus. Conductor Cheryl Ryder’s thoughtful interpretation must owe a debt of gratitude to her decades-long experience as a soprano in the choir of the Church of the Advent under Edith Ho. It was demonstrated in the singers’ subtlety of diction and clarity of tone, but less so in Ryder’s technical ability as conductor.
The final piece is the only one on the program that is both often performed and most associated with Liszt as an organist and virtuoso. Karosi’s reading of the rhapsodic “Prelude and fugue on B-A-C-H” was both flamboyant and intelligent, exhibiting exciting accelerandi and flawlessly executed rapid passages.
A door opened to an experience rarely heard by even the most experienced concert-goers in Boston. It showed a treasure chest holding works of a forgotten canon that deserves greater representation in church and on stage. Lizst’s “other side” was exposed. He was shown to be a composer of austerity, devotion and conservatism. Balint Karosi, Canto Armonico, and probably several others deserve tremendous credit for their programming insight and aesthetic vision in bringing out this memorable concert.
Richard Bunbury, Ph.D., has been teaching musicology and music education, first at the Boston Conservatory, and since 2007 at Boston University, while serving a large church as an organist and music director.