As it's the morning of Good Friday, what better work that Liszt's moving late masterpiece, Via Crucis?
Listening to Liszt's remarkable piece reminds me of looking at an El Greco painting. Both artists are experimenters, unafraid to appear extreme in their quest for intensity. A strong analogy can, I think, be made between the great painter's stretching of figure and the great (if ever-controversial) composer's elongation of tonality. Both achieve an effect of fervency beyond the reach of many a less extreme artist; indeed Via Crucis makes the emotion impact of Christ's Passion more vivid than any other work I know - including the Bach Passions, whose main virtues lie elsewhere. The organ (or piano) passages depicting Christ's carrying of the cross convey convincingly the arduous physicality of the ordeal in their dragging rhythms, the sorrow in their drooping phrases and the emotional pain in their restless chromaticism. The death scene, Station XII's, alternation of Jesus's last words as sung unaccompanied by the bass with ethereal interludes from the organ is surprisingly moving. By the time of the final chorus, Ave crux, I was seeing in my mind's eye a strong vision of a huge cross.
This high praise comes with some caveats. There are some blemishes of bland conventionality - moments of post-Mendelssohnian piety (or kitsch) - and there are other moments where I sense that the improvisatory impulses behind the composer's chromatic adventures have strayed towards bland unconventionality.
These caveats, however, come themselves with caveats. Via crucis is more than the sum of its parts and fleeting fallings-off don't do it significant harm. They also take their place in an eclectic scheme that embraces not only mid-Romantic diatonic harmony and ultra-Lisztian (Wagnerian) chromaticism but also the modality of plainchant (such as the gorgeous opening chorus, Vexilla regis prodeunt), Palestrina-like polyphony (the beautiful recurring Stabat maters, each successively higher and stranger) and Lutheran chorales (including the very famous O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, harmonised - except for its final cadence - less radically than by Bach, and O Traurigkeit, O Herzelied, harmonised with striking originality and much beauty). The chromatic element is, however, the work's defining feature, casting Liszt's lance far into the future. Often expressed simply, it takes a radical route towards Schoenberg, at times deliberately averting its eyes from obvious tonal progressions and restlessly by-passing traditional tonal cadences (more often than not). The effect is wondrously sombre, generally austere, sometimes very beautiful, sometimes not.
Is it always masterful-seeming? No, but (as said before) the whole work is masterful and many of its passages prove Liszt's depths as a composer (sometimes, unfortunately, still doubted). Take the choice he makes in the concluding Ave crux and Amen (Station XIV) where the opening hymn returns transformed and the 'Amens' fade into silence. It's ingeniously conceived and beautifully carried through.
The work can be heard - aptly in stages - here: