Friday, January 31, 2014

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 4 In D Minor

In 1854 the piano virtuoso and composer Henry Litolff made a visit to Wiemar to see Franz Liszt who was acting kappelmeister there, and the two struck up a friendship of kindred spirits. Liszt had this to say about Litolff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4 that was shown to him while still in manuscript form:
"[Litolff's] Fourth Symphonic concerto is a remarkable composition...there is certainly something winged in his [playing]"
Liszt returned the visit to Litolff in Brunswick (Braunschweig in German) where Litolff ran a music publishing house and was a leader of the local music scene. The friendship grew and Litolff invited Liszt back to Brunswick to participate in a music festival he had organized there (he also invited another of his friends Hector Berlioz), where Litolff played Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major in concert, as well as his own Concerto Symphonique No. 4.

It has been said that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. While Liszt's First Piano Concerto certainly is
not a carbon-copy of Litolff's, it does have some similarities. Both have four movements instead of the customary three, in each case the additional movement is a scherzo. Even the notorious (at the time) addition of a triangle to the Liszt scherzo was first done by Litolff. Perhaps the greatest sign of admiration for Litolff's concerto was the dedication Liszt gave to Litolff of his First Piano Concerto. (see comment below)

Litolff was a man afflicted with wanderlust until his later years. He moved away from his native England when he was seventeen, lived in Paris, Warsaw, Brunswick, and traveled all over Europe playing the piano and composing. He was also married four times, and with his fourth wife ended his days in a suburb of Paris.  
The concerto is in four movements:

I. Allegro con fuoco -  The movement begins with a loud chord from the full orchestra followed by a short cadenza for piano. The strings play a quiet short section that leads to another loud chord for full orchestra, cadenza from the piano, and quiet section from the strings which leads to the full orchestra stating the theme that is the basis of the entire movement. The piano writing is virtuosic, sometimes being of a thematic nature and sometimes being an elaborate accompaniment to the orchestra.  The music is passionate, dramatic and is truly written as a symphony for orchestra and piano obbligato.

II. Scherzo - Presto -  This is the one piece by Litolff that is most often heard on recordings and in concert halls. The music is Mendelssohnian and includes a part for piccolo and triangle, the first time either were used in a piano concerto. The orchestra and piano have a rhythmic and rapid dialog in the scherzo, while in the trio  the orchestra plays more subdued  music, but the piano keeps interrupting the calmness with the jauntiness of the scherzo until it wins out and the scherzo is repeated. A short coda has the piano play rapid  interlocking chromatic octaves before the orchestra and piano end the movement with staccato chords.

III. Adagio religioso - Cantabile - The piano solemnly begins the movement, followed up by the horns playing the lyrical theme. The piano enters once again and plays a variant of the opening theme. The horns are accompanied by the piano as they repeat the theme. The theme drifts in and out as the piano plays runs and arpeggios.  The music reaches a climax as the theme is played again by the horns. A swell from the orchestra and piano accompanies the horns as they play a fragment of the theme. The movement ends quietly with muted strings and broken chords in the piano.

IV. Allegro impetuoso - As in the first movement, Litolff uses one theme as the inspiration for most of the movement, and this one theme is related to the motif in the first movement. This gives the entire work a cohesiveness that is more easily felt than explained. There is a short fugato treatment of the theme later in the movement for orchestra alone as the piano is quiet for a rather long stretch for a concerto. But with such difficulties throughout this concerto, a short break for the pianist isn't all bad. The piano plays all manner of figurations of tremendous difficulty. The piano plays bristling octaves and figures as it moves towards the coda that turns the music to a majestic close in the major mode.


1 comment:

  1. Apparently the 1839 version of the 1st Piano Concerto contains piccolo and triangle, so it is most likely the other way around ("The Cambridge Companion to Liszt). They had contact already in the 1840s.

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