Listen: Litolff’s Scherzo

Vicki (that’s not her pictured above) and I know each other of old. She’s part of my musical past.

We met up last week. There was wine. We gossiped about composers, tenors in vests and journalists. Then we drank more wine, during which I talked a lot about me. The perfect evening. The world feels right when Vicki and I natter.

Vicki has an amazing capacity for detail. She loves detail. She soaks it up. She can recall it on demand and with magical precision. 

Hundreds of years ago when we both worked together she introduced me to some very important recordings back in the day when she ran a music shop and I ran an orchestra. Classic CDs like DG’s Verklarte Nacht from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, and most importantly of all, Test Card Classics Volume 1 on Chandos.

Mid-way through an extended recollection from our formative years, I splutter, “What was that piano music you played me twenty years ago? Classic FM used to play it on a loop. It was a Concerto or something. Can’t remember how it goes, but I remember I liked it a lot. It has a piano in it.

“Litolff.”

Litolff’s scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No.4, written in 1852, in fact.

This isn’t a no-brainer for inclusion in the ‘Listen’ thread. There is some awkwardness with this piece. 

The title bothers me for a start. It’s a shit title Litolff. I think it might even be a tautology. It’s either a concerto or a symphony Litolff darling. It can’t be both. Make up your mind. 

Anyway, let’s not get too bogged down in the detail. Musically, it’s weak too. It’s musical froth. Little development. A musical distraction. A showpiece. It’s fireworks. It’s nonsense. All fur coat and no knickers.

But dear God I adore it. It somehow manages to be more Murder She Wrote than the Murder She Wrote theme tune. More Sorcerers Apprentice than the Sorcerers Apprentice. All peril and jeopardy, taken on by haphazard buffoonery and finished off with a defiant two fingers.

I remember listening to it a lot back in Aldeburgh twenty odd years ago. It’s only now – a week after I’ve been reunited with it – I’m beginning to understand why. It was a musical anecdote to the repertoire I was exposed to at the Festival. As a recent graduate, there wasn’t much I was hearing I instantly recognised. Listening felt like hard work because the music I heard was always unfamiliar. My listening strategy hadn’t developed. I wasn’t curious enough. Everything seemed rather worthy. 

Up pops Litolff’s Scherzo (and Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song) and suddenly music seems able to not only communicate its message with immediacy but also be entertaining too. In amongst a lot of worthiness, tightly written entertainment shone through like much-needed light relief. The musical equivalent of an irreverent young sibling providing a pep-me-up during an otherwise dull weekend staying with your parents boring friends.

How does it do that given that the musical idea doesn’t go through much development? I reckon
its down to the endless key changes the piece cycles through, maintaining a sense of perpetual motion throughout. And it’s the way it seemingly crashes to an end, cascading back down the scale towards its unequivocal conclusion.

It shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t really sustain repeat listens. But it does. And that means it has a certain magic to it. Something to keep in the back pocket for that moment when you’re in need of a pick-me-up.

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