Movement 1: Allegro vivace
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Scherzo: Presto
Movement 4: Allegro
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.
from notes by Robert Philip © 2006