It’s common practice for record companies to over-egg the importance or brilliance of obscure repertoire, despite the fact that it’s often been the rule of thumb for the cognoscenti to dismiss such music with comments to the effect that there’s usually a pretty good reason it has remained unknown. And yet curious listeners have reason to be thankful to labels such as CPO and in this case Hyperion who dare to be different, especially when the music unearthed projects the unanticipated levels of quality and craftsmanship that are on display here. When booklet authors of the experience of Jeremy Nicholas confidently proclaim that ‘Litolff’s Piano Trios … have a claim to be the finest examples of the genre from the nineteenth century that are not currently in the standard piano trio repertoire’ one has sufficient reason to believe that this is not just a sales pitch; I’m sure many older readers will have encountered the curt dismissal of this English-born composer by sniffy critics in the 60s and 70s as a ‘one-hit wonder’ (for the benefit of younger readers, the ‘hit’ in question was the irrepressible Scherzo from Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique No 4, a single movement which the once powerful PRTP—the feared Piano Repertoire Taste Police—cruelly abstracted from its rightful context while relegating its sibling movements to undeserved oblivion). In any case, having played Litolff’s trios three times apiece now, I am happy to endorse Mr Nicholas’s view. Both are wonderfully crafted, unfailingly tuneful and intermittently surprising.
Both scores date from around 1850, between the passings of Mendelssohn and Schumann, scions whose benign spirits hover within. The melancholy theme at the outset of the first trio’s opening Allegro is introduced by the velvet tones of Gemma Rosefield’s cello; it soon yields to the florid, impassioned first subject, dominated, like much of this arresting and extended panel by the piano whose part may well, as Jeremy Nicholas suggests, also owe something to Charles-Valentin Alkan. There’s an assertive, cello-led fugal outburst from 4:40; this leads to a delicious tune which is tossed around most gleefully between all three players. The joie-de-vivre of the Leonore Trio’s playing is wholly captivating and plain to hear throughout this disc, and it’s all the more enjoyable for Hyperion’s open, generous sound. The false ending, and the wrongfooting D minor chord at the end of the Allegro owe something to Haydn; furthermore, it’s not the only moment in this trio which seems to anticipate Charles Ives’ second symphony. The opening gambit of the Andante involves a stately descending piano melody accompanied and ultimately developed by the cello and eventually violin. The second subject is longer-breathed and passionate but at 3:16 Litolff regroups and returns to the original theme, at which point the instrumental roles are varied, and the piano writing seems to become more decorative. More of Litolff’s unpredictable harmonic progressions in time lead to a gentle conclusion. The Scherzo incorporates intricate interplay between piano and strings in a 6/8 idea which is by turn lilting and assertive. This climbs in instalments and arrives at a tune which could be a rumbustious, tipsy drinking song. This is blessed some by earthy, rustic fiddling from Benjamin Nabarro. This movement seems more and more Brahmsian after repeated hearings. And it’s the grainy sound of Nabarro’s violin which seems to spring from the dance-like opening of the Presto finale, a movement rich in winning melody and skilful arrangement. The conclusion is especially satisfying, dropping hints of previous themes which meld inevitably and joyfully (there’s another Ivesian peroration here). It’s a superbly crafted piece and the Leonore’s blazing commitment to Litolff, as well as their exemplary preparation are palpable in every bar.
Nor is Litolff’s second trio (this, amazingly, appears to be its first recording) a makeweight. Here the opening piano theme of the first movement (another extended Allegro) presents a Schumann-like tread. It’s developed by all three players until the cello part begins to shadow the violin. By the time the bittersweet second subject emerges it seems like the violin is taking on the level of responsibility afforded to the cello in the first trio. The music gathers pace until at 4:20 piano trills launch a passage rich in pungent pizzicato—it will be clear throughout that Litolff’s melodic invention is again perfectly memorable and his ingenuity in arranging his material extends way beyond the merely proficient. A particularly chromatic episode (at 6:20) prior to the return of the second subject is a good example (it returns from about 9:06 and again at 11.13 in the run-up to the coda)—Litolff’s ideas are always engaging and frequently inspiring. While Tim Horton’s piano work is thrilling in this movement it’s also generous; the piano always seems neatly integrated into the fabric of the whole ensemble. In this trio the Scherzo is placed second and is, to all intents and purposes a delectable English hornpipe flecked throughout with yet more spiky pizzicati. The performers clearly let their hair down here—their playing fizzes with abandon. The initial theme of the Andante seems cool and understated, while a secondary idea builds to another impassioned climax before the original tune is subjected to a sequence of bold transitions. The mood becomes more serious and at 3:50 it all seems particularly sad. After a barcarolle-like figure the panel moves towards a decisive end. Litolff’s score seems to inspire these players to produce colours and textures of ravishing intensity and radiance, especially when one considers the limitations of the piano trio form. Jerky, rather unwieldy rhythms predominate at the start of the closing Prestissimo, but it isn’t long before a breezy tune materialises which evolves into a white-knuckle ride incorporating some scintillating cello runs for Gemma Rosefield and more engaging bravura writing for the piano which Tim Horton navigates with ease.
The neglect of the second trio is unfathomable; Litolff has fashioned a perfectly proportioned, imaginatively melodic vehicle for a virtuosic, dynamic group and the Leonore Piano Trio do not disappoint. Both these big-hearted works benefit from their brilliant individual and collective contributions, while the heart-on-sleeve joyfulness in their playing bursts out of the speakers. The Hyperion recording is warmly realistic. There’s an apt encore in the pert form of Litolff’s little Serenade for violin and piano from 1857, a winsome salon lollipop delivered with abundant style (and one imagines an occasionally arched eyebrow) by Benjamin Nabarro and Tim Horton. On this evidence, the message to Hyperion (and other labels) is clear: more Litolff please!!