There is no doubt that the Henry Litolff’s Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique, No.4, op.101 is a popular work: it is regularly played on Classic FM often in the recording by Peter Donohoe and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (Hyperion CDA66889). This includes the entire concerto and is the only recording of the complete work currently available. The Scherzo is a piece of music that is undeniably effective, but can be judged as being built on some ‘slender and over-worked material.’ The mood is that of Mendelssohn rather than of Liszt in spite of its considerable virtuosity.
I cannot recall the first time I heard Litolff’s Scherzo, however it is one of those pieces that seems to have cropped up regularly on records and wireless. The Arkiv catalogue currently includes some 15 versions of this ‘extract’ ranging from Winifred Atwell to John Ogden.
I recently bought the APR CD of Moura Lympany’s The HMV Recordings 1947-1952 (APR6011) and was delighted to find her 1948 recording of this Scherzo which was originally issued on HMV C3763. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Walter Süsskind.
Edward Sackville and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (The Record Guide, 1955) suggest that this recording is a ‘bright and clear little disc…’ but remind readers that ‘a stylistically impeccable rendering of this piece exists in a version by Irene Scharrer.’
The analytical notes in The Gramophone (July 1948) also reminds the reader of the competition to this recording – Irene Scharrer which was issued on October 1933 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood. A.R. notes that Sharrer’s version (Columbia, DB1267) was ‘discovered’ during the Second World War and became something of a ‘hit’ in various services’ gramophone clubs. Stephen Sisk has referred to it (Scharrer) as a ‘sparkling, often spine tingling performance.’
The reviewer notes that Lympany’s recording ‘starts with an explosive force which I cannot think the composer…intended and at a speed which is surely excessive.’ However he goes on to suggest that Lympany’s ‘light fingered playing…is extremely skilful and gay.’ He considers that if the ‘tinkling exuberance’ continued it would drive ‘one mad.’ I get the impression that he prefers Scharrer, in spite of some cuts to the music in that older recording.
Moura Lympany was to record the Scherzo again during the nineteen-sixties with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
For the record, Henry Litolff was born in London on 6 February 1818. His father was from Alsace and his mother was English. Litolff studied with Ignaz Moscheles. His first public concert was on 24 July 1832 at Covent Garden. A few years later, after a marriage that was not approved of by his parents, he left for France. Litolff made a considerable name for himself as a concert pianist in Paris. He separated from his wife and devoted himself to his playing career, touring extensively. In 1851 he took over the running of the publisher Meyer (renamed Litolff) after marrying the founder’s widow. His final years were spent in Paris where he devoted much time to composition. His works include four operas, a number of operettas, five concerto-symphoniques for piano and orchestra as well as chamber music and recital pieces for piano. Alas, he is now only recalled for his Scherzo and for the music company that bore his name.
Moura Lympany’s 1948 recording of Litolff’s Scherzo can be heard on YouTube.