Franz Liszt was notable for his pyrotechnic piano technique fashioned after that of romantic violinist Niccolo Paganini, ushering in the romantic notion of the "Artist as Hero." As a beacon of the Romantic Movement, Liszt was on hand for the majority of the era. While best known as a pianist, piano composer, teacher, and son-in-law of Richard Wagner, Liszt was also very active in composing vocal and choral music.
Among Liszt’s final projects was an oratorio on the martyrdom in 1079 of Poland’s patron saint, St. Stanislaus. Liszt composed the music for Scene 1 in 1874, then just prior to the composer’s death in 1886, he finished Scene 4. No music is extant for the middle Scenes 2 and 3 of the oratorio. In the present world premiere recording, Scenes 1 and 4 are performed just composed with the exception of Scene 1’s ending, the bishop’s mother’s aria, which Liszt left only in piano-vocal score. This aria has been orchestrated by Paul Munson in a manner consistent with Liszt’s other orchestral works from the same period.
In Scene 1, a crowd gathers in front of the cathedral in Krakow complaining to the bishop, Stanislaus, about the cruelty of King Boleslaw II. Encouraged by his mother, the bishop declares that he will confront the king. In the missing Scenes 2 and 3, Stanislaus rebukes the king for mistreating his subjects. The king tries to get rid of the bishop by accusing him of theft and putting him on trial. God raises from the dead a witness who testifies to the bishop’s innocence—whereupon the king, frustrated and enraged, murders the bishop in a fit of passion.
Scene 4 begins with an expansive orchestral interlude that programmatically depicts the king’s remorse over the murder and his penitential pilgrimage to a monastery in Carinthia, Austria, where he lives his last years. The fast second half of the interlude is based on the Polish national anthem and celebrates the healing and future glory of the nation. Its rousing conclusion is followed by a remarkable shift in mood, when the penitent King Boleslaw sings Psalm 129/130 ( Out of the Depths I Cry to You, O Lord ) accompanied by organ and monastic choir. The oratorio ends with the exclamation "Hail Poland!" sung by Boleslaw and the chorus, at first soft and sweet, then exultant.
The music is full of Slavic nationalism, as were a good number of Liszt’s compositions. The two Orchestral Interludes were composed in 1884 and based on two Polish National Songs and incorporating the Polish national anthem. Wholly Romantic in personality, the music is brooding and powerful, accented with low stings and brass, as well as the lower vocal ranges. Liszt opted for mezzo-sopranos, baritones, and basses to express the gravity of the plight of Stanislaus and the importance of the separation of church and state that is the central political message of the oratorio.
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