Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Andante con moto
Movement 4: Grazioso, poco allegro
Movement 5: Allegro
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.
from notes by Robert Philip © 2006