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Henry LITOLFF (1818-1891)
Concerto symphonique No. 2 in B minor Op. 22 (1844)
Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 (1851/2)

Peter Donohoe (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton.
Rec. 19-20 October 1996, Caird Hall, Dundee [DDD]
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Volume 14
HYPERION CDA66889 [70.39]
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The listening public owes Hyperion a huge debt for the series, 'The Romantic Piano Concerto,' of which the present issue represents Volume 11. Litolff has been seen as even less than a one-work composer - only one movement, the Scherzo from the Concerto symphonique No. 4, has retained a hold on the repertoire, extracting notable interpretations from Curzon, Cherkassky and Ogdon. The present recording represents the only available recording of No. 2, and the only complete one of No. 4; there is also an account of No. 3 in E flat, Op. 45 (c1846) by Ponti on Vox.

Litolff was a student of Moscheles. He sits firmly in the tradition of the performer-composer, helping to form a link between the Classical and Romantic periods. He added an 'extra' movement to his inherited concerto model, inserting a Scherzo between first movement and slow movement. His five Concertos symphoniques sometimes feel more in the mode of a symphony with piano obbligato (the piano part is always virtuoso), although the pronounced lyricism of the Andante of No. 2 leaves no doubt as to the piano's solo role. This movement, in fact, captures Donohoe at his best: entirely in style and completely convincing. There are, however, some hints towards Donohoe's propensity to 'bang' the piano (i.e. to not give an appropriate fullness of tone to passages above forte).

The Second Concerto dates from 1844. The orchestral contribution is notable for being lyrical but with momentum: Litton commendably does not allow over-sentimentality. It has to be said that the orchestra sounds substantially more involved than Donohoe, who seems to be always at one remove (despite the high quality of his filigree and overall dexterity). Donohoe is actually at his best in the Allegretto rondo-finale, with its playful and jaunty dance-like theme. He has no problems with the strong virtuoso element of this movement.

Again, Donohoe is not quite up to the free-flowing lyricism of the first movement of No. 4; and he fails to capture the element of fantasy inherent in this music. That said, the Lisztian opening gestures are well brought off, and the dramatic argument of the movement remains intact. The orchestra excel themselves.

The famous Scherzo brings neat playing from Donohoe, and a fair amount of panache towards the end, but here the element of fun is the crucial missing piece to this jigsaw. The piano sounds uncomfortably close in the Adagio religioso, and above mezzo-forte the legato appears strained: it is only in the finale (Allegro impetuoso) that Donohoe seems to fully let his hair down. Ironically, it is the orchestra (who up until this point had been excellent), that lets the movement down with scrappy string playing.

Worth hearing for the repertoire, certainly, even if the overall impression is that of a 'near miss'.

Colin Clarke

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