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Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 92
Spring 1892

'Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios' (CDA67538)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios
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Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Andante con moto
Movement 4: Grazioso, poco allegro
Movement 5: Allegro

Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 92
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.

from notes by Robert Philip © 2006

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Details for CDA67538 track 7
Andante con moto
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 7
    Release date: April 2006
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