Trond Kverno’s Passion and the Crux with Via Crucis

NorwayNorway Liszt, Kverno: Matthias Gillebo (tenor), Kåre Nordstoga (organ), Terje Kvam (conductor), Oslo Cathedral Choir, Oslo Cathedral, 14.3.2012 (JFL)

Liszt: Via crucis
Kverno: St.Mark Passion

Liszt must be the most famous, least appreciated composer. Everyone knows him, no one listens to him. A sentiment that rang a bell with Esa Pekka Salonen: “Liszt is a case in point of course. As a name he is extremely well known, and who knows his music? Very few. Absolutely.” Was he doing any Liszt? “Hmmm… It so happens that the orchestral repertoire is not the best Liszt. I’m a big fan of the late piano music and some orchestral pieces, also. I like the Faust Symphony a lot. But no, I haven’t performed even that piece for the longest time.He’s a composer I should take a better look at, actually. I just got the score of Christus last year. And I’ve been looking at it from time to time. That looks very beautiful.”

It sounds beautiful, too. In fact it’s perhaps the most touching, striking Liszt among the more obscure of his compositions, unashamed of touches of conventional beauty. I’m also intrigued by The Bells of Strasbourg (from which Wagner found inspiration for Parsifal) and many other works. In fact, I’m often very intrigued about off-the-beaten-path Liszt works, ready to discover and fall in love… only to be repelled or let down or gliding back into indifference after being met by the music with emotional ambivalence.

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F.Liszt, Via crucis,
Z.Pad / Debrecen Kodaly Chorus / D.Karasszon

Via Crucis is one of those pieces that I go to in hope of finding that Liszt is indeed as popular to the ears as he is prominent… only to scurry and try again, elsewhere or with a new recording of Via Crucis again, a year later. To my ears, the original version for organ, chorus, and baritone, is more an organ work than a choral piece; a difficult one at that. Perhaps that’s why recent recordings have gone for the version for piano and chorus, which is altogether more often recorded than the original. (Among the most successful, to my jaded ears, is a brand new performance with Roland Conil with Roland Hayrabedian and Musicatreize on Phaia Music PHU001)

The Accentus Chamber Choir under Laurence Equilbey (Brigitte Engerer on piano, naïve V5061) might have the most spot-on choral performance but can’t ultimately make a case for the eclectic work. Among the versions with organ, Johannes Wenk (carus 83.144) and Dezső Karasszon (Hungaroton HCD 32685) come closest to suggestion cohesion and real, almost desperate earnestness to me.

The 2012 Oslo Church Music Festival had put the Passion and Passion music front, back, and center. Literally: it opened and closed with Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John’s Passion… and in the middle waited two domestic passion world premieres: Ketil Bjørnstad’s “A passion for John Donne” Trond Kverno’s St. Luke’s Passion. Alas, the latter had to be cancelled and the concert at the Oslo Cathedral on Wednesday, March 14th had Via Crucis coupled with Kverno’s St. Mark Passion in one of only two concerts I managed at the impressive and innovative Festival.

It’s unusual to have the established composer/work up front, and the contemporary work second. At least it doesn’t conform to standard concert programmer’s ‘sandwiching’ techniques that are designed to expose ears to new, sometimes challenging music, by giving them as little incentive or opportunity to bolt. After hearing the two works side by side, the decision made sense: Liszt’s work is the challenging one, and Kverno soothes.

The Oslo Domkor under Terje Kvam—lined up before the quaint, almost naïve carved bas-relief altar piece of the Cathedral—was not to blame for the Liszt-struggles. But the way the reminiscing organ part (Kåre Nordstoga) became a halting, staggering endurance test for the ears was. It must be anguished, handwringing expressions that Liszt wanted to compose into the often improvisatory-sounding music for the organist. And there must be a way to find the entry-point into something that’s personal, deep-felt. Alas, just playing the notes correctly has no chance of making anything but awkwardness tangible… amid which the choral outbursts seem strangely misplaced. And what might be haunting stillness, ideally, becomes just a breakdown in communication. When Veronica comes around the corner in Station VI, the question arises whether the best bit in Liszt ought to be by old Johann Sebastian Bach.

During Trond Kverno’s Markuspasjonen the chorus transformed from admirably persistent to a group that sparkled with energy and joy as they fed on the traditional, conventional harmonies of the music and its chugging rhythms. The fine acoustic of the Cathedral, with a pleasant reverb of just over one second (up to two and a half, at full throttle), made their contributions all the more effective. Roguishly handsome tenor Matthias Gillebo, with that hint of not too long ago having enjoyed a career as a mischievous chorister, sonorously crooned his part, written in close parallel to Gregorian chant, perhaps with one eye on the Graduale Romanum. With music that is always drawn back to a resting pitch from which it deviates rarely and only briefly when it does, the result bears more of a pacific, monodic quality than it remains memorable. Liszt, admittedly, has Kverno there.

Jens F. Laurson