Movement 1: Maestoso
Movement 2: Presto
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegro vivace
With the sound of wind band and timpani, the first movement opens with a military air. Such an idea might have emanated from a ‘revolutionary’ opera of Méhul, Cherubini, or Le Sueur. Amid bold dynamic contrasts and unconventional progressions, the military dominates the orchestral exposition, though relief is temporarily provided (in a manner akin to Beethoven and Hummel) by reference to the lyrical second subject. Such a procedure had already been explored in the Second Concerto Symphonique (recorded on Hyperion CDA66889) and would unswervingly form the basis of his later concertos albeit with a greater sense of aplomb. The piano enters obliquely, as if embarking upon a cadenza, before orchestra and soloist launch into the second exposition. This phase of the work, the so-called second exposition, effectively expands the material already heard in the orchestral introduction, though now as part of a larger sonata-ritornello structure. The central orchestral ritornello takes us from the dominant, B flat, to the relative, C minor, marked by a closing cadence. This forms a platform for the development which begins with a veiled quotation from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, a work Litolff greatly admired and which he frequently played on his European tours. Still in C minor, this yields to a nocturnal re-interpretation of the military idea, reminiscent of Field. A shift away from the relative is marked by the appearance of the lyrical secondary material, which, ever more frenetically for the soloist, moves towards the dominant. The recapitulation, very much understated (after the piano’s second cadenza), is signalled by the restatement of the second subject, first in the piano, and then by the orchestral tutti. This material essentially constitutes the much truncated reprise, for it is only in the spirited coda that Litolff chooses to restate the military music as a grand closing gesture.
The scherzo, with its ubiquitous ‘tripping’ figures (created by the prolixity of acciaccaturas) and dialogue between soloist and orchestra, has all those familiar characteristics of the corresponding movement in the more famous Fourth Concerto. In the latter, Litolff adopted the more conventional ternary design, but in his Third Concerto the structure and tonal organisation are altogether more unconventional. The opening 97 bars of music in C minor, deftly orientated around the dominant, function as an extended preparation for the main focus of the movement, a full orchestral statement of a Dutch children’s song ‘Al is ons Prinsje nog zoo klein’. This tune then forms the basis of a fugal paragraph which also ends on the dominant, while a third section, marked ‘Presto’, attempts to restore C minor, only for the dominant to re-assert itself once again. This entire process is repeated wholesale, the final ‘Presto’ section this time used as a coda to establish C as the unequivocal tonic.
The slow movement, in a simple ternary song form, features Litolff’s favoured sonorities of the cello and horn. The nocturnal mood, reminiscent once again of Field (though the harmonic world has the modernity of Chopin and Liszt), is disturbed briefly by an episode of tension and drama, but it soon gives way to a restatement of the main melody, more fully scored for the orchestra with decorative arpeggios and scalic passages in the piano.
The finale has a lightness and vivacity like those scintillating closing movements in Mendelssohn’s concertos, where extreme agility is demanded not only in rapid passages of semiquavers, but also in spread tenths and double octaves. For the second subject Litolff introduced a second Dutch tune, ‘Wien Neerlands bloed’ (by Johann Wilhelm Wilms), which was widely sung in Belgium in 1830 during the successful uprising against the House of Orange. In fragmented form this anthem constitutes the bulk of the ensuing development and is strikingly recapitulated in B major in Litolff’s beloved lower strings. The recovery to E flat major, via its subdominant, is also executed with a Lisztian boldness, especially in the arresting orchestral transition that links this lyrical section to the athletic coda.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2001