The weeks leading up to the Easter are traditionally seen as time of reflection and meditation. Every year the hundreds of Passions are being played all around the world, not forgetting Seven Last Words and Via Crucis which can also count on a renewed seasonal interest.

Reinbert de Leeuw
Reinbert de Leeuw

Franz Liszt’s Via Crucis is itself a result of the Easter week meditation. The Stations of the Cross at Good Friday procession, held in the Colosseum during Liszt’s stay in Rome, made a profound impression on the 70-year old composer. The spiritual intensity of the commemorating stations and the Calvary route found its musical embodiment in 14 stations, originally intended for choir, soloists and organ. Liszt dreamed of a performance in the Colosseum with harmonium supporting the choir inside, and a portable organ for the procession outside this partially ruined Roman amphitheatre. His dream didn’t come true, but he never came away from the Via Crucis. New versions followed: for choir and piano, for organ, for two pianos and for piano solo. Out of all these versions and arrangements made by Liszt himself, the piano version from 1876-79 is the most pure and essential one. It has the same monumental majesty and sonority force as the original composition for choir, soloists and organ, but is not intented for cathedrals and spatially concert halls. With its asceticism and rigour, harmonic thoroughness and unlimited possibilities for dynamic variation it is more at home in a chamber setting where the intensity of music beleiving can be increased by the attention to the slightest expressive details.

The happy few in the Small Hall of the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven had a chance to deepen their experience under a personal guidance of the theatre director Peter Sellars. This personal aspect of sharing the artist’s views, thoughts and ideas yielded a quite unusual Via Crucis – a format of an extended existential meditation followed by the music. Sellars suggested topics which lay in the very nature of the Stations of the Cross: pain and suffering as a part of the path to be once completed by everybody. The pain can be both teacher and messanger, if people don’t try to ignore and push it out of life. Through the texts from the different spiritual traditions, Sellars suggested looking at suffering as a trip which requires a lot of courage. In its turn, the path of suffering can be a transformative path and a sacrificial path as well. Both may be followed with patience and generosity.

If the audience felt slightly overtaken at the beginning, overwhelmed by the intensity of the exacting reflections, it recovered very quickly and accepted Sellars’ suggestions to slow down their thoughts and expectations. The concentrated silence was tangible and Via Crucis became wonderfully close and actual as a story of patience, acceptation, clarity and transformation. At the moment Reinbert de Leeuw entered the stage, everybody was ready to put the first steps along the Via Crucis with Liszt. The pianist, and conductor with a lot of experience in contemporary music, unfolded Liszt’s stations in all their sound grandeur and monumental depth of sonorities. Countless shades, gradation and nuances, from the sublime and sedative to glorious, sharp and biting, accompanied our steps along the path.

Both De Leeuw and Sellars presented Via Crucis as a universal story of sufference and “the music of experience”. No commented Via Crucis explaining what the composer meant to say and let us feel. No advice to try to hear the pain in sharp chords, but a suggestion to think about pain and sharpness of suffering. The “key speaker + pianist” concept asked for tremendous concentration, but helped the audience to experience the music through its own experience and own reflections about fragility of life and the courage needed to put the steps on the path of their own life.

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