Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International
February 2016

Lalo’s Piano Trios are not unknown by any means but you’d be doing well to claim any real familiarity with them either on disc or in the concert hall. All three are sealed with a Schumannesque kiss: Lalo was unusual in his veneration of German music and few others of his compatriots would have been outspoken enough to declare that ‘Germany is my true musical fatherland’ and he practised compositionally what he preached.

The C minor Trio was written around 1850, the product of a composer then barely 27. It opens with a ruminative soliloquy for the cello—you won’t find flashy tricks in Lalo—before he introduces the first of his strongly contoured melodies. Agitato sections melt into flowing cantabile ones. With much expressive weight falling on the cello, it’s important that the string players match bow weight and vibrato speed and are sensible about unison passages—fortunately the Leonore Piano Trio players have clearly put in a lot of thought to these matters. The slow movement is, in essence, a Romance sans paroles whilst the scherzo is a doughty dance. Annotator Roger Nichols calls it ‘fairies dancing in lederhosen’—maybe he’s playing on Tovey’s old Sibelian trope of the Violin Concerto’s ‘polonaise for polar bears’. Predictably the cello’s recitative starts an ingratiating Schumannesque-cum-Mendelssohnian finale.

The Trio in B minor followed about two years later—no one seems quite sure as to the exact dates of composition of these two early trios. There are hymnal qualities to its opening and one of his most infectiously attractive melodies in the flowing cantabile of the slow movement. The scherzo is wittily projected with quite a theatrical trio section and there’s a deal of agitato in the finale, but also lashings of brio and verve and sheer tunefulness. It would be hard to judge these two works retrogressive stylistically, given the rough date of their composition. Their centre of gravity is certainly Germanic, but Lalo’s absorption of his models is excellent and thoroughly convincing.

By the time of the 1880 trio—the date for this one is known—nearly thirty years had elapsed since his last piano trio. Starting appassionato, the writing is now more harmonically questing even, sometimes, a touch piquant. A strikingly persistent piano is answered in the scherzo by strings that sound more resilient than ebullient—a most invigorating piece of characterisation. The slow movement is a funeral march, though its elegy is balanced by sufficient contrast, whilst the finale does sound just a little Brahmsian, despite Lalo’s protestations that he disliked Brahms’ music, allied to more evidence of his much-loved Schumann. This is certainly the most structurally sophisticated of the trios, as one would expect from its date of composition.

Benjamin Nabarro, Gemma Rosefield and Tim Horton make a very convincing case for this trio of trios and the production—recording, notes, and design—is up to Hyperion’s high standards.