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Paolo LITTA (1871-1931)
Concert Trilogy, for violin and piano (1909-24)
Ilona Then-Bergh (violin)
Michael Schäfer (piano)
rec. 2019, University of Music and Performing Arts, Munich
GENUIN GEN20690 [82:18]

Paolo Litta’s name meant nothing to me. Nor did his concert trilogy composed between 1909 and 1924 for violin and piano, an 82-minute canvass that’s charged and influenced by three specific works; Wagner’s The Ring, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, a key Symbolist novel, and Paul Gaugin’s painting called, in translation, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

The thought of a triptych by an unknown composer basing itself on these three works is, to me at least, and putting things mildly, more than somewhat unnerving. Still, if it’s psychodrama you want, then it’s psychodrama you’ll get and on the grounds that if you’re good to momma, momma will be good to you, then prepare to immerse yourself in a piece that reflects stylistic staging posts as we progress from the Franckian via hothouse chromaticism to a kind of searingly bizarre pottage of influences.

Where to start? Biography, perhaps. Litta was born in Stockholm in 1871, his father Italian and his mother Swedish. He spent early years in Brussels, where his first compositions were published and toured as a pianist. In 1900 he married the Italian singer Ida Isori and lived with her near Florence. The first two parts of the trilogy were published by Libera Estetica, whilst the final part was published by Universal Edition in Vienna. Litta died in 1931 at the age of 60, having seemingly given up composition after his wife’s death in 1926.

The first part is called Le Lac d’Amour and is patterned after a four-movement sonata form with the movement titles – Le Lac, Le Cygne, Cloches d’Antan and finally La Source qui pleure – supplying a full complement of poetic-symbolic suggestiveness. The ripe ardent lyricism is saturated in Franco-Belgian lineage; Lekeu, d’Indy, obviously Franck. The music is ardent but even on repeated hearings not particularly distinctive, though it does possess a sensual languor and in the bells of the third panel – which functions as a scherzo – cyclical writing ensures a kind of leitmotif element. The finale is the most explicitly Franckian, full of figuration and ending with quiet intensity. Again, there’s a lot of writing but much of it sweeps over the ear.

La Déesse Nue (The Nude Goddess) is the central panel and followed in 1912. Here chromaticism is king with some powerful accelerandi and sonorities and Tristanesque allusions. Apparently, he added a triangle part to the violin-piano duo and, the notes add, the inclusion of an expressive dancer. Clearly, he was taking the music beyond the confines of the page toward a kind of staged performance, a kind of chromatic choreography. The final part of this bewildering work is called Death as a Fiddle. This is a kind of totentanz, one that develops using the leitmotif principle, but the harmonies have been pushed outward sometimes to the point of – avant la lettre – polystylism. Around the seven-minute mark the violin shudders and shrieks and the piano tolls remorselessly, though around 13-minutes in this 22-minute panel things simmer down. The end of the piece, however, is searing and exhausting. It seems barely comprehensible that Litta should have conceived this work for the medium of the violin and piano. It’s the kind of work that demands a howling, raging orchestra. But maybe that’s the point or one of the points. It is so unlikely a medium, the work seems that much more bizarre, that much more crazed.

In the end Litta removed the triangle and dancer from his thoughts and intentions. He called the work A Concert Trilogy. Michael Schäfer’s notes helpfully guide the reader: in addition, he is the pianist in this pioneering recording. He and Ilona Then-Bergh – their recordings are an illuminating feature of Genuin’s rich catalogue of discs - have very little realistic hope of ever performing this work on the concert stage. The rather dry recording is somewhat chilly, but the performances are fiercely committed and surmount all objection.

Jonathan Woolf

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