Sunday, May 25, 2003

Unfinished Liszt opens with stunning May Festival debut

Concert review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For 117 years, Franz Liszt's oratorio St. Stanislaus was forgotten, gathering dust in archives. On Friday, conductor James Conlon and the Cincinnati May Festival gave the world premiere of the two existing scenes of the newly discovered oratorio in Music Hall.

It was a fascinating first hearing of a work that is, in many ways, a masterpiece that attracted national attention and brought the audience to its feet.

Yet, it is an unfinished masterpiece: There were signs of the composer's struggle, perhaps the reason he worked on it for 12 years until his death in 1886.

Some moments were simply stunning; others lacked drama and momentum. .

In the end, one can hardly judge a work that is missing two entire middle scenes.

Despite its shortcomings, St. Stanislaus is an important discovery, brought to light by musicologist Paul Munson, a Liszt scholar and professor at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Conlon and the May Festival forces will make the world premiere recording for Telarc this week.

The subject is a tale of conflict between church and state: the confrontation between Bishop Stanislaus and the cruel King Boleslaw II, with Stanislaus' murder in 1079. Poland's patron saint was a compelling topic for Liszt, a Hungarian.

Musically, this is partly the spiritual Liszt, with quotes of Gregorian chant. But it is also full of stirring nationalism, with liberal use of the Polish national anthem.

The introduction opened with chant played darkly in unison by the strings of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and gradually evolved into Liszt's typical chromatic harmonies.

Choruses, wonderfully sung by the May Festival Chorus (Robert Porco, director), were richly rewarding. One of the evening's most beautiful moments came in "Beschutz uns, O Vater!" (Protect us, O Father!), a simple hymn-like number which began a cappella, and ended with a major-minor slide on the words "in the grave."

The final chorus, "Salve Polonia!" was a stunning setting that began quietly and grew into a stirring anthem, underscored by horns.

Baritone Donnie Ray Albert, stationed in the balcony for Scene 1, struck a powerful presence as Stanislaus and sang movingly as he promised to help his people.

In the last scene, he took the role of King Boleslaw, and captured the character of the despairing ruler who has just killed the bishop. It was an extraordinarily profound moment, colored by the dark sound of the men of the chorus (Monks) singing "De profundis," with organ accompaniment (Michael Chertock).

The most radiant music went to the bishop's mother, in her first scene aria (the only piece that Munson orchestrated; all else was scored by Liszt). Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson sang her scene with heartfelt emotion, in one of the real highlights of this oratorio.

Smaller roles were performed by Teresa Buchholz, Liza Forrester, Stacey Rishoi, William McGraw and Gustav Andreassen, stationed throughout the hall.

The orchestral interlude before the final scene was an amazing fantasy, largely on the Polish national anthem. Conlon, a superb Liszt interpreter, led with affection and inspired transparent, precise playing from the orchestra.

The premiere was of part of an evening of "encores and premieres" performed at the May Festival over its 130-year history. In an unusual gesture, Conlon led the four works without a break in the first half. Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, which opened, was memorable for its tautness, drama and urgency. The other high point was Gian Carlo Menotti's Chorus from The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, featuring the Cincinnati Children's Choir (Robyn Lana, director), who lifted light, well-trained voices in this deeply moving work.


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