Gould Piano Trio: Saint Saens
Piano Trio No.1 in F major Op.18
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.92
La Muse et le Poète Op.132
Internationally acclaimed Gould Piano Trio bring their artistry to trios by Saint-Saëns, and his little known La Muse et le poète on this new recording for Champs Hill.
Thirty years separate his Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2, although the first is by no means an immature work – the composer was 28, with two symphonies and violin concertos behind him, and his virtuosity as a pianist shines through right from the opening Allegro.
His second trio, composed once he had achieved international fame and experienced marriage breakdown and the loss of his beloved mother, seems more serious in tone and, it could be argued, reflects this. Although Saint-Saëns himself cautioned strongly against the incorporation of subjective emotions into music saying “Art is intended to create beauty and character, feeling only comes afterwards and art can very well do without it. In fact, it is very much better off when it does”.
Benjamin Frith, pianist, writes in his introduction to the disc “He was ahead of his time in authentic performance practice habits and an understanding of the classical repertoire, far exceeding that of most of his romantic contemporaries. Saint-Saëns’ very long life took him through the Romantic period well into the age of Debussy and early Stravinsky. Out of kilter with the latter era, for many years he had the reputation of a musical reactionary. Today, however, we can view him with more historical perspective.”
- Sleeve Notes
Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Albinoni, Bruch, Barber, Humperdinck. While not exactly “one-hit wonders”, they all belong to that pitiable sub-set of composers who have written one work which is vastly more popular than all their others, obscuring appreciation of their broader achievement.
To their number can be added the name of Camille Saint-Saëns, whose “Carnival of the Animals” - a musical depiction of hens, tortoises, fish and (most famously) a swan - remains by far his best known composition, not least because it is often used to introduce children to the attractions of classical music.
There is irony here: in his lifetime Saint-Saëns never allowed the “Carnival” to be published, viewing it as a piece of harmless fun, but not typical of the more serious work on which he wished to build a lasting reputation. A century before the age of social media soundbites and instantaneous global communication, Saint-Saëns already fully understood the perils of adventitious celebrity, and wished to avoid it.
Among the compositions by Saint-Saëns still clamouring for fuller recognition today - he wrote over 300 works in total - is his substantial body of chamber music. Sonatas for bassoon, oboe, clarinet, cello and violin are part of it, while for larger combinations of instruments there are two string quartets, a piano quartet and quintet, a septet, and the two piano trios featured on this recording.
The first of these, the Piano Trio No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, dates from 1863. Though still in his twenties, Saint-Saëns already had a sizeable quantity of music behind him, including his first two numbered symphonies and a pair of violin concertos. So it is not surprising to find that the opening movement of the Op. 18 trio already has such a feeling of technical assurance and fluidity about it. The blithe, insouciant melody with which the cello makes its initial entry is immediately imitated by the violin, both instruments skipping along lightly, like new-born lambs in a pleasantly open pasture.
It is, though, the piano which soon becomes the most irrepressibly active of the three gambolling partners. Its cascading flourishes of notes have an unstoppably joyful quality, and incidentally provide an insight into Saint-Saëns the pianist: aged 28, he had been a brilliant virtuoso player for years already, and his delight in public performance can be clearly felt in this opening, Allegro vivace movement.
Though clouded by minor key colourations and some turbulence in its central section, the mood elsewhere is gracefully ebullient, recalling Mozart (a composer Saint-Saëns idolised) in its elegance. Was it inspired by a trip that Saint-Saëns made to the idyllic countryside of the Auvergne, as biographers have suggested? Possibly: the music has a distinctly al fresco feeling to it.
The second movement has rustic connotations too, in the drone effect created at the outset by the violin and cello intoning single notes, as though emulating a medieval fiddle or a hurdy-gurdy. The gently melancholy tune enunciated first by the cello has a folk-like quality which shows a brighter, more yielding side of its nature in the movement’s middle section. The drone material resurfaces in the coda, somehow deepened and a touch desolate.
Any residue of vulnerable introspection is blown away in the skittering Scherzo, a delightfully nimble dance whose steps are marked by fine-tooled pizzicatos and dotted rhythms in the piano. The rippling finale is, by comparison, more relaxed in metabolism. A surprising amount of it is marked to be played quietly, or very quietly, with a light, concessive touch from the players. The sense of airy liberation that results is like a freshening breeze in summertime: nothing, it seems, can blot the simple pleasures of the passing moment, or return the happy daydreamer to more mundane reality.
It was nearly three decades before Saint-Saëns returned to the piano trio format, and when he did the results were very different. In the years between, Saint-Saëns married (abandoning his wife six years later), became an internationally successful composer, and suffered (in 1888) the death of his beloved mother, an event which affected him deeply.
Did some of Saint-Saëns’ personal feelings and tribulations seep into the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 92 (1892), an altogether more serious-sounding work than its Op. 18 predecessor? Perhaps, although Saint-Saëns himself cautioned strongly against the incorporation of subjective emotions into music. “Art is intended to create beauty and character”, he wrote. “Feeling only comes afterwards and art can very well do without it. In fact, it is very much better off when it does”.
These comments notwithstanding, it is virtually impossible not to hear disquiet and agitation in the E minor Trio’s opening movement, with its swirling piano part and churning development section. Vestiges of instability persist in the second movement Allegretto, whose attempts to set a carefree dance in motion are undermined by the jittery five-in-a-bar time signature, and a piano part that shoots off nervously in unpredictable directions, at one point provoking the violin and cello to behave in similar fashion.
The emotional temperature abates to gently wistful in the central Andante con moto, a movement often compared to Schumann, whose music Saint-Saëns strongly advocated. The short, waltz-time movement which follows marks a blithe-spirited return to the world of the Op. 18 Trio, its nimble playfulness intended as an opportunity for the listener to catch a moment of relaxation before the renewed seriousness of the finale.
The mood of that concluding movement is immediately more austere. All three instruments toy with contrapuntal material, as though seeking a balanced accommodation between the disparate strands of feeling expressed earlier in the Trio. A jittery, hyperactive fugal episode launched on violin dominates the middle section, eventually generating a roiling climax, underpinned by pummelling chord-work on the piano. A brief interlude of calm and respite follows, like sunshine after a heavy shower of rain, before the turbulence recommences. All three instruments join in driving the Trio to a truculent, uncompromising ending.
“Feeling only comes afterwards”. Is it possible to listen to the E minor Trio without concluding that Saint-Saëns has broken his own rules about keeping private emotions out of music? Does it not clearly communicate states of mind and spirit that are all too human in their mingling of delight, trouble and trepidation?
These are difficult questions to answer. Further clues about the enigmatic relationship between Saint-Saëns’ personal life and his music are, though, offered in La Muse et le poète, a work that is little known, especially in the original version for piano trio heard in this recording.
It is a partly whimsical piece, expressing - perhaps - nostalgia for the past (the work was almost embarrassingly out of date stylistically by 1909, the year of its composition). Are there also, in the sweetly melancholy, impassioned, eventually optimistic exchanges between the violin and cello, elements of something deeper and more personal, simmering under without ever fully breaking surface?
It is certainly possible. An aborted marriage, the death of two infant children, and the passing of his mother - these traumatic events all shook Saint-Saëns deeply. Scholars have also argued that for much of his adult life he suppressed feelings of homosexuality, perhaps seeking a clandestine outlet for them on his trips to North Africa.
Beneath the typically spry, elegant surfaces of his music darker thoughts and impulses do often seem to loiter. As the music writer Jessica Duchen aptly puts it: “All the fluidity, flamboyance and sparkle was effectively a mask for a troubled man who preferred not to betray the darker side of his soul. As with many great comedians, his art concealed an existence that contained more than its fair share of tragedy”.
© Terry Blain
- Press Reviews
"Interpreters might be tempted to decorate the music with 'expressive' deformations, but happily not here, where rhythms are taut ... and melodies played as written...overall these performances do the composer proud."
- BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE
"Nothing seems forced or overstated, with tone and mood immaculately judged. The recording itself is beautifully balanced: listening on headphones, I really felt as if I were sitting in a room with the Goulds themselves at a private performance for an audience of one. Very fine."
"The Gould Piano Trio play both with a nice feel for the salon etiquette of the period and an unshowy sparkle"
- FINANCIAL TIMES
"The turbulent opening, the jumpy Allegretto (unusually in 5/4 time), two shorter movements and then a densely wrought finale with intricate counterpoint are all powerfully projected by the Gould Piano Trio."
- THE GUARDIAN
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