Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International
February 2020

Litolff? Oh, yes, the scherzo. The scherzo—as if that were all that he had written. Even one of the great pianists of the last century, Clifford Curzon, recorded only the scherzo, ignoring the fact that it’s just one movement of his concerto symphonique, No 4, Op 112. That recording remains available on Decca Legends where, with Franck’s Symphonic Variations, it rounds off a fine performance of Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, with the LSO and George Szell; it’s also available in two bumper sets (all download only).

Thankfully—and predictably—Hyperion have given us not only No 4, performed by Peter Donohoe, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton (CDA66889), but his other concertos. No 2 is coupled with that recording of No 4, with Nos. 3 and 5 from the BBC Scottish SO on CDA67210. No 1 has been lost.

Now Hyperion bring us the two piano trios and the Serenade for violin and piano, in the same month as a superb account of Prokofiev’s ‘wartime’ piano sonatas (CDA68298, Steven Osborne, a Recommended recording from Dan Morgan and from me in my Winter 2019-20/#3 roundup) and more ground-breaking repertoire from Belgian composers Dupont and Benoit in the same Romantic Piano Concerto series as the Litolff (CDA68264, Howard Shelley with the St Gallen SO).

From nearer to the other end of the musical time scale we recently had Hellinck’s Missa surrexit pastor bonus and Lupi’s Te Deum and Motets (CDA68304) and, in late March, we are due to have Juan Esquivel’s Missa hortus conclusus, Magnificat and Motets (CDA68326). Though Esquivel has had walk-on parts on other recordings, this is, I believe, his first album to himself. Other labels are keeping up the good work of bringing us unfamiliar music, but Hyperion still leads the field in that regard.

This is not quite the first outing for the Litolff piano trios; there was a recording of No 1 on the Genesis label, who had brought us the first complete recording of the concerto symphonique No 4 in 1974 (later concerto and trio were combined on CD, no longer available).

Litolff was a renowned piano virtuoso, and his compositions were praised by contemporaries such as Liszt and Berlioz. This recording of the piano trios shows why. I wouldn’t exchange these inventive compositions for Mendelssohn, say, or Brahms—they are not quite that memorable—but they are well worth hearing in these fine performances. And the Leonore Trio are the people to do it, having already recorded out-of-the-way repertoire for Hyperion, as, for example, the Pixis Piano Trios. David Barker, in a review of the Pixis trios which also included two of his piano concertos (CDA67915), wrote that there was every reason to be grateful that what he assumed would be their only ever recordings were so good.

That could be just as appropriate a summation of the new Litollf; we shall probably not see their like again, but both the performances and the recording quality make a strong case for having them in the catalogue. As with the Pixis trios, the acoustic of All Saints, Hampstead, adds to the success of the recording.

It’s evident that Litolff was a pianist; that instrument comes very much to the fore in the first trio, with more for the other instruments to do in its successor. Both are sparkling affairs, making the Renoir painting on the cover, depicting rowers relaxing after lunch less than appropriate; the music is more redolent of their strenuous pre-prandial efforts. Not that the members of the Leonore Trio or their sub-set in the sonata—if anything, more impassioned than the trios—make it sound like hard going, but the rowing analogy holds good in that the ensemble is as admirable as the quality of individual playing.

If you download Hyperion’s generous free sampler for February 2020, you’ll find the slightly abridged finale of Trio No 1, together with excerpts from the wonderful Prokofiev sonatas and the Benoit concerto recordings mentioned above and other goodies from recent releases on the Hyperion and Signum labels (music by Ešenvalds and Guerrero from the latter, both reviewed in my Winter 2019-20/#3 roundup).

Not an essential purchase, then, but an appealing one, especially for lovers of romantic piano music. I shall certainly be returning to it. The 24-bit download is a little more expensive than most high-res Hyperions (24/96 £13.50, 24/192 for real audiophiles £15.75), but the 16-bit, which I imagine will satisfy most listeners, is more reasonably priced at £8.99; target price for the CD around £10.50.