Hyperion Records

Concerto symphonique No 5 in C minor, Op 123
Litolff’s Third Concerto enjoyed almost as much popularity as the Fourth in later years and was often performed not only by Litolff himself but by other aspiring virtuosi. The larger and more mature Concerto Symphonique No 5 in C minor Op 123, while well thought of, appears to have enjoyed less attention than its two forbears. This may be owing in part to the concerto’s considerable technical challenge in all four movements. It is also possible, however, that the more serious demeanour of the work appealed less to pianists and concert promoters than the Third and Fourth Concertos which had already become immensely popular over a period of twenty years or more beforehand. Yet in many ways the Fifth Concerto contains some of Litolff’s most interesting music. The scale of the work is also larger and more dramatic in gesture, the orchestral palette is more spacious (symptomatic of the developments in orchestral instruments of the later nineteenth century), and the harmonic palette more experimental.

The structural processes of the first movement are much the same as practised in the earlier concertos—i.e. the classical organisation and delineation of soloist and orchestra remain intact—but it is in the nature and expression of the ideas that one detects a stylistic change. A new romanticism is evident in the brooding, almost Faustian darkness of the orchestral opening (which stretches to 132 bars compared with the 85 of the Third Concerto), and the influence of Liszt is plain to see in the richer harmonic vocabulary of the second subject (the initial dominant eleventh is a particular Lisztian thumbprint). There is also a broader contour to the melodic lines, and a greater confidence in the counter melodies invariably to be found in the tenor register of the cellos, both of which contribute to a greater sense of symphonic cohesiveness.

The second movement, a scherzo in the Second, Third, and Fourth Concertos, is instead a slow movement of haunting beauty in E major, a ‘song without words’ dominated by the sumptuous, ‘vocal’ character of the cello and horn. The piano too has much splendid material as is borne out by the passionately Lisztian response to the opening orchestral statement (the sense of harmonic control, particularly in the recovery back to E major, is masterly) and the dramatic, not to say histrionic gestures of the central section.

The scherzo, entitled ‘Intermède’, is a more demonic counterpart to its sister in the Fourth Concerto. With its angular sevenths, lean counterpoint, and sudden tonal shifts the movement has much in common with the Mephistophelian ethos of Liszt’s symphony and waltzes, though there is also that individual wry humour, colourful scoring (note especially the distinctive use of piccolo and triangle), and rhythmic vitality individual to Litolff’s extrovert personality. A foil to the sinewy texture is provided by a euphonious lilting theme suspended above the dominant of E flat, though this idea soon becomes infected with the idée fixe of the seventh interval. This may also be said of the unusual trio which begins in a becalmed manner with pizzicato strings and fragments of a pastoral bassoon solo, but is very quickly dispelled by further development of the scherzo material.

The sonata rondo finale must be one of Litolff’s most bizarre and eccentric creations, yet it also embodies something of the composer’s latent originality. The classical rhetoric of the opening suggests that Litolff was once again looking back to Beethoven’s Third Concerto for his model, yet the overtly romantic second group of ideas, introduced by the piano, is finally balanced between a Mendelssohn Song without Words and a Lisztian ballade. Litolff’s recapitulatory process is also highly imaginative for in place of the conventional restatement of the first subject he inserts an extended cadenza of ferocious technical difficulty. Besides transforming the first subject, the cadenza, a full blown fugue, functions as a secondary development within the wider context of the movement’s sonata structure and is a logical outcome of the material’s fugal potential hinted at during the opening portion of the movement. The dynamic energy of the fugue looks back in part to Beethoven, but one suspects that it was Liszt’s use of fugue as a vehicle of modernity that inspired Litolff to write this extraordinary paragraph. For his part Liszt, who admired Litolff and his concertos immensely, dedicated his First Concerto (1849; revised 1853 and 1855) to his friend. It also seems likely that Litolff’s four-movement model played a part in the construction of Liszt’s work, since a scherzo (replete with Litolff’s much-loved triangle), features prominently at its centre.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2001

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