Thursday, July 6, 2023

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 2 In B Minor

 Henry Litolff was born in London, but by the time he was 17 he began to make his way around Europe as a pianist, conductor and composer. He composed and taught most of his life, and became friends with an assortment of who's-who of 19th century composers and musicians, among them Liszt and Berlioz. His was a busy life, as he composed much, ran a music publishing firm until 1858 (his adopted son continued to run the business after Litolff divorced his mother), traveled Europe as a soloist, and married four times!

His contribution to the piano concerto literature were 5 Concerto Symphonique, a hybrid of concerto and symphony in the writing for piano as well as orchestra. Neither entity is the sole star of these works, as the orchestra is an equal partner to the soloist. That takes nothing away from the brilliance of his writing for the piano; there is much flash and brilliance in these works for the soloist and orchestra, and Litolff must have been a virtuoso pianist, for most concertos were written by the composer to perform themselves. There are but 4 of these works in existence as the 1st is considered lost. The 2nd Concerto Symphonique was written in 1844.

I. Maestoso -  Litolff begins the concerto with the typical double exposition of the time; the orchestra makes an extended statement of material before the soloist enters with their version. Low strings make the initial quiet statement of the first theme. The full orchestra and strings expands on the theme. The second theme is more lyrical in  nature. After some ominous rumblings, the first theme returns with full orchestra in the major mode. A short transition ushers in the piano with a solo rendition of the first theme with an arpeggiated accompaniment in the left hand. The theme continues to be commented upon by the piano with a light accompaniment. The second theme enters with a solo cello accompanying the piano. Both themes are elaborated upon and the music moves effortlessly into the development section of the movement as the orchestra extends the themes until the piano returns with commentary over short motifs of the first theme. Orchestra and piano take turns until the piano begins the recapitulation with the first theme. The piano and cello return to their short duet as the second theme enters. Themes are restated and worked through, until the piano and orchestra have a dialogue in a short coda that shifts the first theme to the major mode again and the movement ends. 

II. Scherzo - While the first movement is traditional in form, if not in the method of writing for the orchestra and piano as equals, it is in the second movement where Litolff makes the innovation of adding a scherzo to a piano concerto. In Liszt's 1st Piano Concerto, which is played without pause, there are 4 distinct sections with one of them being a scherzo. Liszt may have been inspired by Litolff's Concerto Symphoniques to do the same. Bassoons and timpani begin the movement, with the piano playing off their utterances with brilliance. The trio is in a jocular mood, and very short. The scherzo is repeated, and ends with a flourish. 

III. Andante - The third movement begins with muted strings, and has an improvisatory feel.  The piano enters and plays a theme that takes its time unwinding amid the strings and horns punctuating the harmony. A middle section grows more agitated, but soon resumes a more quiet demeanor. Orchestra and piano slowly lead to a held chord that instead of resolving, leads directly to the final movement.

IV. Rondo: Allegretto - Low strings play quietly, the piano responds with flourishes up the keyboard. After a few exchanges, the movement proper begins with the rondo theme. The soloist plays flashy runs and chromatic octaves between repeats of the rondo theme. One of the episodes has the piano play a theme, and the orchestra takes it up as the soloist changes from playing the theme to accompanying the orchestra. The brilliance of the piano gradually builds until a coda has thundering octaves in the piano while the orchestra takes the music to the end.

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