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Piano Trio No 1 in F major, Op 18
composer
1863

Recordings
'Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios' (CDA67538)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios
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Details
Movement 1: Allegro vivace
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Scherzo: Presto
Movement 4: Allegro

Piano Trio No 1 in F major, Op 18
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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.

from notes by Robert Philip © 2006

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67538 track 3
Scherzo: Presto
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-06-53803
Duration
3'37
Recording date
23 December 2004
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Saint-SaŽns: Piano Trios (CDA67538)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: April 2006
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