In remarks opening the commemoration of the Franz (Ferenc) Liszt centennial, Ambassador Vencel Hazi of the Hungarian People's Republic said, "One hundred years after his death, he still remains somewhat of a mystery."
Sunday's concert at the Washington Cathedral opened with the "Missa Choralis," written when the composer had recently taken sacred vows. The Cathedral Choral Society, under the direction of J. Reilly Lewis, presented the surprisingly austere piece, largely based on Gregorian chants and plainsong, without giving in to temptation to dramatize it.
Douglas Major played the subdued organ part, adding occasional color to a fine choral presentation. From the delicate Hosanna, sung by the sopranos at the close of the Benedictus, to the rich full harmony of the final Amen, each detail was carefully attended to.
A totally different Liszt was heard in Major's performance of the Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam." Opening with an intense Gothic flourish, the rather long piece moves through many shifts of tempo, color and tonality. Major brought coherence to what could have been a pastiche with his often athletic playing.
While Sunday's concert did not solve the mystery of Liszt, there is still a week of festivities that may make his art and life better understood.