The Scherzo second movement of the Concerto Symphonique No 4 by Henry Litolff has for so long been the sole association that many listeners have with his music that it could almost be part of his name. Until 1973 it was, to my knowledge, the only work of his that had been recorded. Even on piano rolls the only other work that appears is a Welte-Mignon roll of Hubert Flohr playing his Spinning Song Op 81. I snapped up the Genesis Records recording of the complete Concerto Symphonique No 4 when it appeared back in the seventies but I never heard the Mirecourt Trio's recording from 1975 of his first Piano Trio. I now realise the joy I missed out on.
Henry Charles Litolff was born in London to an Alsation father and Scottish mother. He studied with Ignaz Moscheles, married four times and was feted throughout Europe as a piano virtuoso and composer. Some elements of his life read like an improbable opera plot—being rescued from prison by the jailer's daughter for one–and it seems curious that no-one has taken the opportunity to write a biography. Just as curious is why such worthwhile, imaginative, refined, idiomatic and, let us not pretend otherwise, pleasurable music languishes in obscurity.
Well at least here is a second recording of the first trio alongside two world premiere recordings. I feel that these two trios could easily take their place alongside more familiar repertoire. That repertoire is safe in its position and nothing here will usurp it, but the complete neglect of these trios suggests a paucity of imagination and skill on Litolff's part that just isn't the case. The writing is exciting, colourful and virtuosic, the melodies are memorable and, whilst it is fair to say that the inspiration is a mix of Schubert, Weber, Alkan and Mendelssohn, I find an individuality and freshness here that is very appealing. Take either of the Scherzo movements and you will find the same drive and charm that inhabits the scherzos of the piano and orchestra works—individual touches like Litolff's fondness for leaps and high registers abound. The Schubertian andante of the first trio is full of contrasts of instrumental texture and the finales of both trios are grand tour de forces; all the instruments have virtuoso parts but the piano is certainly put through its paces in both of the trios, without overpowering the strings.
The Serenade that completes the disc is an enchanting and melodious salon miniature. The Leonore Trio have done a marvellous job bringing these works to life. The performances positively sparkle with wit and joie de vivre and are brimming with enthusiasm and conviction. I can't imagine better ambassadors for this unsung repertoire and I hope that they have opportunity to record the third trio, written just a handful of years after the two recorded here.
Hyperion Records have built on the pioneering work of Genesis and with this release we have three generously filled CDs of his music. I sincerely hope that more will follow. There are orchestral works, concertante works for violin, including a Concerto Symphonique, a string quartet as well as over a hundred solo piano works, many songs, choral works and at least eleven completed operas. Ample scope for exploring this worthy composer who was so highly considered in his time.