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Hyperion Records

CDA67538 - Saint-SaŽns: Piano Trios
Path in a Wood (1910) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Musťe Renoir, Les Collettes, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France / Lauros / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67538
Recording details: December 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2006
Total duration: 59 minutes 30 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

'Well, the Florestan Trio have done it again—if this disc doesn't at least win a Gramophone Award nomination, I'll eat my hat. Indeed, such is the cumulative emotional impact of these performances that, I don't mind admitting, I wept during the wonderful fortissimo climax of the E minor trio's first movement—that even before the astonishing intensity of the final, precipitous Allegro … recorded sound and accompanying notes are, of course, impeccable. No argument: just buy it' (Gramophone)

'The Florestan's rhythmic verve, subtle shading and luminous, sparkling textures (pianist Susan Tomes's cascading fingerwork a constant delight) catch the trio's spirit to perfection. A winner' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Violinist Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester are at their most expressively subtle and sweet-toned, floating phrases with a compelling memorability … add to that Susan Tomes's melt-in-the-mouth pianism—tonally ravishing, innterpretatively magical—another exemplary Andrew Keener/Simon Eadon production and absorbing booklet notes from Robert Philip, and this one should literally fly off the shelves' (International Record Review)

'The cover shows a Renoir painting, Path in a Wood, and since the Florestans are playing we know just where the path leads: towards bliss. Their light, nimble style finds a perfect match in Saint-Saëns' youthful first piano trio, full of rustic charm; with these musicians there's never a dull phrase. In the weightier second trio, the inspiration runs around in spots. But never underestimate this composer: the Florestans don't. This CD can't miss' (The Times)

'Outstanding. These are works no lover of chamber music should be without' (Fanfare, USA)

'If you are looking for these gorgeous, masterful pieces―and if you don't own them you certainly should―then purchase this disc in full confidence that it cerainly doesn't get any better' (ClassicsToday.com)

Piano Trios
Allegro vivace  [7'14]
Andante  [8'02]
Scherzo: Presto  [3'37]
Allegro  [6'27]
Allegretto  [6'18]
Andante con moto  [4'04]
Allegro  [8'05]

Despite being the composer of innumerable works in all genres from grand opera to piano miniature, Saint-Saëns today is known largely for his third symphony (the ‘Organ’ Symphony), the piano concertos (award-winningly recorded by Stephen Hough on Hyperion) and the omnipresent Carnival of the animals (a work its composer did his best to suppress). The two piano trios, composed in 1863 and 1892, stand at the apogee of his neglected chamber music output, and their place in a genre the composer held dear is reflected in their quality.

Piano Trio No 1 was Saint-Saëns’s first truly successful work. Inspired by the terrain and folk music of the French Pyrenees, it has a breezy simplicity, its open lyricism—naïveté even—offering so much more than 1860s opera-mad France could ever have realized. The second trio is a more serious and subtle work; the intervening decades had seen Saint-Saëns retreat from a world in which he felt increasing marginalized. From self-imposed exile in Algeria he sent this work to the world as a postcard firmly reiterating his belief in the values of traditional form and melody.

Performances by The Florestan Trio are every bit as committed and polished as we have come to expect from their many previous acclaimed recordings.


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Introduction  EnglishFranÁaisDeutsch
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn before him, Camille Saint-Saëns was an immensely gifted child prodigy. Like them, he was blessed with an easy and natural facility, both as a composer and as a performer, and he himself wrote that he spent his long career ‘fulfilling the function of my nature, as an apple tree grows apples’. He began composing at the age of three, and was playing concertos in public from memory by the age of ten. Wagner, who first met Saint-Saëns in 1859, later wrote that he could play his operas, including Tristan, from memory ‘with such precision that one might easily have thought that he had the actual music before his eyes’. Saint-Saëns was the organist at the church of La Madeleine for several years, and Liszt, who heard him improvise there, declared that he was the greatest organist in the world.

Another characteristic that Saint-Saëns shared with Mozart and Mendelssohn was a profound interest in the classics of the past. He gave performances of the complete Mozart piano concertos, supervised an edition of Rameau’s works, and revived the music of Lully and Charpentier, J S Bach and Handel. Meanwhile he promoted the work of living composers, many of whom became his friends—not only Wagner (with whom he later fell out), but also Berlioz, Gounod and Liszt, who helped to bring about the premiere of Samson and Dalila in Weimar many years before it was performed in France, and to whose memory Saint-Saëns dedicated his ‘Organ’ Symphony. Gabriel Fauré said that he ‘learned everything’ from his teacher and friend Saint-Saëns, and wrote after his death in 1921 of ‘his unlimited knowledge, his marvellous technique, his clear and exquisite sensibility, his integrity, the variety and astonishing number of his works—do not all these justify his claim to recognition for all time?’.

This question still hangs in the air. Over a long lifetime Saint-Saëns composed a huge quantity of music of many different kinds, including twelve operas, but only a handful of his works are still played regularly. The reason often given was expressed soon after his death by the French music historian Henry Prunières: ‘Saint-Saëns was always inclined to write with excessive facility; the flowing ease of his pen obliterated all other considerations. For this reason, out of his enormous work there survive today only a few gems of the first water.’ It is undoubtedly true that his works are so varied that it is sometimes difficult to pin down a consistent musical character. Saint-Saëns himself admitted: ‘I am an eclectic spirit. It may be a great defect, but I cannot change it. One cannot remake one’s own personality.’ But of Saint-Saëns at his best Prunières goes on to say: ‘His style, precise, nervous and clear-cut, is absolutely characteristic and also essentially French; it recalls that of the eighteenth-century French writers, particularly of Voltaire—nothing is superfluous, everything has its place. Order and clarity are supreme.’ Romain Rolland, writing in 1908 during the latter part of Saint-Saëns’s career, also emphasized Saint-Saëns’s connections to the past: ‘At times, his music seems to carry us back to Mendelssohn, to Spontini, to the school of Gluck. He brings into the midst of our present restlessness something of the sweetness and clarity of past periods, something that seems like fragments of a vanished world.’ This very cleanness and transparency of approach, which often led him to be labelled as lacking in passion, gives the best of his music a distinctive appeal. Perhaps, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have learned enough about musical fashions and their sometimes dire consequences to relish anew a composer who (like his pupil Fauré) had his own way of doing things, and paid little attention to current fads.

Prunières names as the gems of Saint-Saëns’s music his symphonic poems, the Symphony No 3 (‘Organ’), and Samson and Dalila. In more recent times his piano concertos have enjoyed a revival, and we have the ubiquitous Carnival of the Animals, which Saint-Saëns did not allow to be published during his lifetime. Perhaps the greatest works outside that well-known list are the two piano trios on this disc. The first shows Saint-Saëns at his most delightful, the second the composer at his most serious.

The Piano Trio No 1 in F major Op 18 was written in 1863. In this year, Saint-Saëns entered for the second time as a candidate for the prestigious Prix de Rome, and again failed to win it. He was twenty-eight, unusually old for a candidate, and Berlioz, one of the judges, afterwards made the celebrated observation that Saint-Saëns ‘knows everything, but lacks inexperience’. This was not just a quip: as a performer and composer Saint-Saëns was already established, but was out of tune with the establishment. He had a reputation as a brilliant maverick, espousing unfashionable composers and causes. He played Mozart and Schumann in his concerts; he taught at the École Niedermeyer, which was rooted in the old traditions of choral music, rather than at the Conservatoire, which was the seat of the musical establishment; and among his passions was a love of chamber music, a genre not considered important in a world in which opera was king. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that his first really successful work, and the earliest that is still played regularly today, should be this Piano Trio.

The F major Trio is said by Saint-Saëns’s early biographers to have been inspired by a holiday in the Pyrenees. There is certainly a fresh, ‘open-air’ character to its principal theme, but its charm is achieved subtly, by one of those deliberate confusions between two-time and three-time. Fauré, his favourite pupil at the École Niedermeyer, was often to use such ambiguities to make his music rhythmically fluid. But Saint-Saëns creates a much more naïve, down-to-earth impression, like a child who can’t quite decide whether to skip or to run. This delightful theme dominates most of the movement, though Saint-Saëns the pianist from time to time bursts out with brilliant figurations, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes delicate.

The second movement has a solemn opening theme intoned over a drone. Anyone who has encountered the folk music of France’s mountain regions will know just what Saint-Saëns had in mind: this is the sound of the hurdy-gurdy or vielle, complete with a characteristic tug of the rosined wheel at the end of each phrase. After this rustic opening, the music becomes more rhapsodic in character. Then a pianissimo melody, first on violin and answered by the cello, suggests a dreamy reminiscence of the hurdy-gurdy, and after a build-up to a climax the opening theme returns, with a gently percussive new element in the piano. There is another, briefer and faster, dreamy episode, then a final return to the hurdy-gurdy, and the movement ends as it began.

There is a rustic air to the Scherzo too, in which two ideas alternate. The first has a nonchalant, tongue-in-cheek character, beginning with strings pizzicato and piano off-beat. The second idea takes the off-beat accents and makes a stamping peasant dance of them. Both of these ideas are then elaborated, with the piano adding a witty running bass to the first, and flinging dazzling arpeggios into the second. The movement finishes as nonchalantly as it began, with the violin suggesting another touch on the hurdy-gurdy just before it ends.

The same naïve spirit is maintained in the finale—it is difficult to imagine another composer in the 1860s beginning the movement with so simple a gesture. At first there seems to be nothing more than an exchange of rising and falling intervals between cello and violin, with a rippling accompaniment in the piano. But Saint-Saëns is playing with our expectations. After a few bars, it becomes clear that the pattern in the piano is forming a melody, and the cello and violin are merely accompanying it. This half-hidden melody turns out to be one of the most important elements in the movement, and Saint-Saëns returns to it at several points—at a quiet moment in the centre of the movement, where the piano plays the theme simply, again towards the end as a climax builds, and in the final bars, where this melody is speeded up to form a witty conclusion. Add a vigorous second theme, more of Saint-Saëns’s characteristically glittering piano arpeggios, and a great deal of interaction between these different elements, and the result is a movement of irresistible flair and dash.

During the twenty-eight years that separated Saint-Saëns’s First Piano Trio and the Piano Trio No 2 in E minor Op 92 the world of music changed greatly, and Saint-Saëns’s relationship with it changed too. In the 1860s, he had been a young composer and virtuoso, achieving success by going his own way, often in opposition to the orthodoxies and fashions of his day. By the 1890s he had become a somewhat conservative and isolated figure, though more because of changes in the world around him than because of any fundamental change in his own attitudes (Michael Calvocoressi, who lived in Paris before the First World War, wrote that he ‘was at the close of his career exactly what he was at the outset’). In 1871 Saint-Saëns had co-founded the Société Nationale de Musique, devoted to the performance of works by young French composers. In 1886, he resigned from it, ostensibly because of a proposal to include non-French works in the society’s concerts, but largely because of the dominance of César Franck and his pupils, from whom he had become ever more distant. Much of Saint-Saëns’s isolation arose from his opposition to the ‘Wagner-mania’ that had engulfed the musical life of Paris like an epidemic. Saint-Saëns wrote: ‘People who were incapable of playing the easiest thing on the piano and who did not know a word of German spent whole evenings working through the most difficult scores in the world … Wagner had invented everything; no music at all existed before him and none could exist after.’ Though Saint-Saëns admired much of Wagner’s music, he regretted that he found himself surrounded by a generation of young composers for whom Wagner had made the old classical values of Mozart and Beethoven irrelevant. He felt personally isolated too. With the death of his mother in 1888 he had no family left in Paris, and he took to spending periods abroad. And it was while he was in Algeria in the spring of 1892 that he composed the Second Piano Trio.

Whereas the first trio has an immediate freshness and impact, the second is the more serious and subtle work. It shows Saint-Saëns writing on a grand scale and steadfastly sticking to his principles of composition, with only limited acknowledgment of the developments that were going on around him. It contains none of the intense chromaticism that other French composers, such as Franck and Chausson, had already adopted from Wagner and Liszt. The trio is in five movements. The first and last are substantial, the middle three much shorter, creating a satisfying symmetrical structure to the whole work.

The opening is one of Saint-Saëns’s most telling inspirations. The piano plays a pattern of repeated chords, rising and falling in a wave, and marked ‘very lightly’ (extremely difficult to achieve on the modern concert grand). Over this pattern, alternating violin and cello float a sombre melody. The melody itself suggests that Saint-Saëns might have had the opening of Tchaikovsky’s massive Piano Trio in mind—the two composers had struck up a friendship in Moscow in the 1870s. But only Saint-Saëns could have combined such a broad and intense melody with such delicate and airy piano-writing. This lightness of texture gives the theme immense room to expand. It returns, pianissimo, at the end of the first section; then, after a build-up at the end of the development, it forms the great climax of the movement, fortissimo, with more agitated figurations in the piano creating as powerful an impression as anything in the Tchaikovsky Trio.

The second movement also hints at a link with Tchaikovsky. It is a sort of irregular minuet in five-time, like the second movement of the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. But if there was an influence, this time it was the other way round—Tchaikovsky did not write the ‘Pathétique’ until the following year. Saint-Saëns demonstrates how to write a movement in five-time that sounds entirely natural, not just a quirky variant of a conventional dance. It is at first delicate and in the major, later urgent and in the minor. The opening section alternates with passages of swirling piano runs, still in five-time, but too agitated to retain any feeling of the dance. The movement ends a little more gently than it began, with the melody turned upside down and acquiring almost the languid character of a habanera.

The slow movement is brief, simple and heartfelt. A sorrowful descending phrase dominates the entire movement, already marked appassionato at the beginning and becoming more so as the intensity increases. It gives the impression of a homage to Schumann, whose chamber music Saint-Saëns championed in Paris at a time when it was thoroughly unfashionable. The fourth movement, like the second, is a dance, this time a more straightforward fast waltz.

After three quite brief movements, the finale returns to the grand scale of the first. It declares its serious intent straight away, with a solemn theme in bare octaves sounding like the subject for a fugue. Indeed much of the movement is highly contrapuntal, almost ecclesiastical in feel, though real fugal writing is reserved for a completely different theme in the centre of the movement. When the original, solemn theme returns Saint-Saëns cleverly combines the two themes together. But any impression that the music is becoming academic is offset by passages with characteristically glittering textures and virtuoso piano-writing. Late in the movement, the piano introduces yet another element: a melody with a gentle limp to the rhythm, which sounds almost as if it is harking back to the irregular dance of the second movement. This moment of relaxation is short-lived. The new theme is combined with the fugue subject, and a climax is reached. After a brief lull, Saint-Saëns distils the movement’s first theme into simple running octaves on all three instruments. We could almost be back in the organ loft of La Madeleine, with a virtuoso pedal solo, and as the tension mounts Saint-Saëns brings the work to an end in a mood of powerful determination.

Robert Philip © 2006

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