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Music review: Lisztomania, courtesy of Jacaranda, in Santa Monica

April 24, 2011 |  2:37 pm

Jacaranda 1
This year's Liszt list should be, but isn’t, long. No doubt Hungarians will toast the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birth on Oct. 22 with gallons of Unicum, their medicinal national liqueur that is as baffling to foreigners as is their language. But the international celebration for this Hungarian Idol and music's first superstar seems to be little more than the odd piano or organ recital. Few orchestras are paying real attention. Where’s the bling for the father of musical celebrity?

That fact is we still don’t seem to know what to make of so protean a composer that he proved not only the most popular and influential musician of the 19th century but also the most progressive. And one of the more curious.

Fortunately, Jacaranda stepped intriguingly and importantly into the Lisztian waters Saturday night at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica with a little bit of everything. Two Liszt symphonic poems -– “Les Preludes” and “The Battle of the Huns” -- were given in versions for two pianos. This served double duty, showing Liszt’s wildly inventive approach to programmatic music while allowing two dazzlingly young pianists -- Steven Vanhauwaert and Danny Holt -- to exhibit something of Liszt’s flamboyant keyboard side.

In between, four Liszt songs were sung in a grand operatic manner by mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott to remind us of the essential influence Liszt had on Wagner.

After intermission, 10 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and organist Mark Alan Hilt, Jacaranda’s music director, performed “Via Crucis.” Having had his fill of fighting off swooning aristocratic ladies at his concerts, Liszt became an avant-garde abbé, devoting his late life to the Catholic church.

Jacaranda2 “Via Crucis” covers Christ’s14 stations of the cross. Completed in 1879, it was not performed for 50 years. Even then, the score proved so far ahead of its time that it wasn't published until 1938. As far as anyone can tell (records are sketchy), Saturday’s performance was the first in Los Angeles.

The music is mercilessly spare. There is almost no comfort to be found in Liszt’s telling of Jesus’ painful journey from death sentence to tomb. The skeletal text Liszt chose allows only the barest of descriptions. Given on the evening before Easter, with chamber choir standing beneath a scarf-draped cross and accompanied by organ, “Via Crucis” conveyed obvious spiritual urgency.

But that made this slow work -- which in this painstaking but very beautiful performance lasted close to an hour -- seem no less daring. There are archaisms, including a setting of a Bach chorale in the center as a rare moment of succor.

Mostly, though, Liszt portrays stark horror. His radical otherworldly harmonies that don’t seem to go anywhere, his thin organ and vocal textures, along with his irregular rhythms, are time-suspending devices. Yet they produce an alarmingly inexorable narrative revealing the inevitability of death. Liszt’s genius here was in creating soft music that softens no blows.

There is certainly nothing soft about Liszt’s two-piano versions of his tone poems. I missed orchestral color in “Les Preludes,” a famous piece, and orchestral power in “Battle of the Huns,” a more obscure one. But what fun the compensating virtuosity of Vanhauwaert and Holt.

In “Huns,” inspired by a painting of Attila in battle, the Holy Roman Empire is represented by an organ or harmonium in opposition to the orchestra. Hilt joined in, with the organ overpowering two powerful grands.

There was also power aplenty in Baggott’s attack on “Mignon’s Song,” “The King of Thule” and two “Wanderer’s Night Songs.” The Chicago mezzo was a Valkyrie in Los Angeles Opera’s “Ring” Cycle last year, and she belted impressively once again in Santa Monica. She meant every word of text to wow, but she needed pianist Armen Guzelimian, who accompanied her with model clarity and careful expression, to remind us that, above all, Liszt was a great composer.

RELATED:

Music review: Louis Lortie's Liszt at Segerstrom Concert Hall

Louis Lortie will play Franz Liszt, and play and play

-- Mark Swed

Photo: above, Steven Vanhauwaert, left, and Danny Holt perform Liszt at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica Saturday night; below, members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale performing Liszt's "Via Crucis." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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