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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Trio No.1 in F major Op.18 (1863) [25:30]
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.92 (1891) [34:22]
Florestan Trio (Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Susan Tomes (piano))
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 21-23 December 2004
HYPERION CDA 67538 [60:03]

Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Trio No.1 in F major Op.18 (1863) [26:42]
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.92 (1891) [30:49]
Trio Wanderer (Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano))
rec. August 2004, Salle Modulable IRCAM, Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901862 [58:01]

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The music of Saint-Saëns has been enjoying something of a boost from the recording companies over the last decade or so. The new Hyperion recording of the composer’s accessible Piano Trios follows hard on the heels of a well received 2005 Harmonia Mundi recording with the Trio Wanderer. This review compares both the above recordings.

Saint-Saëns’ First Piano Trio was composed in the year (1863) that he failed, for the second time, as a candidate for the prestigious Prix de Rome and in so doing earned, one of the judges, Berlioz’s celebrated stinging remark, ‘knows everything, but lacks inexperience’. A tad harsh! Because as Robert Philip writing in the Hyperion booklet rightly remarks, "he was out of tune with the establishment [but] had a reputation as a brilliant maverick espousing unfashionable composers and causes".

This Piano Trio is thought to have been inspired by a holiday in the Pyrenees. The opening Allegro vivace has fresh, ‘open-air’ charm with springy syncopations and a dance-like character with ever-changing harmonies. The Florestan Trio’s reading is light-hearted, the music romping forward gaily and there is a nice breezy atmosphere of childhood innocence. Harmoni Mundi’s Trio Wanderer is just as vibrant, but a little rougher edged, more unsophisticatedly bucolic; no bad thing considering its inspiration. Vincent Coq’s piano brings a delightful free springiness to the music. In the Andante second movement, the Harmonia Mundi players are more successful in realising the folk music element of France’s mountain regions, particularly the drone, sounding, one imagines, just like the hurdy-gurdy or vielle. The Wanderers accentuate that much more its characteristic tug of the rosined wheel at the end of each phrase. The Florestan Trio’s version of this movement is attractive, more tentative perhaps, but dynamic enough and the lovely middle section is beautifully and dreamily sorrowful. There is an endearing rustic quality about the Trio’s Scherzo as it struts perkily along. Appealing wit and cheeky phrasing are on offer from the Florestan’s violinist Anthony Marwood while Trio Wanderer are jauntier still, their reading just that much more bouncy and fiery. The Wanderer Trio’s concluding Allegro is quite as jolly and outgoing as that of Florestan but the Harmonia Mundi players etch in more light and shade.

Both versions of this gorgeous Trio in F major are attractive but at a pinch and if I had to choose it would be the Harmonia Mundi recording.

Twenty-eight years were to pass before a much more conservative and anti-Wagnerian Saint-Saëns wrote his five-movement Second Piano Trio in E minor. The structure of the work has two significant outer movements, book-ending three shorter movements, with, quite unusually, a brief Andante. Except for the fast waltz-based fourth movement, the Trio Wanderer adopt consistently faster tempi than their Hyperion rivals.

The opening movement was thought to have been inspired by Tchaikovsky’s grand Piano Trio. Indeed, the two composers had become friendly when they met in Moscow in the 1870s. Beginning rather sombrely it opens out into a structure spanning a wide emotional range. The Florestan reading, 1¼ minutes longer than that of the Wanderer, allows the music to breathe. There is time to explore it more leisurely, its intimate as well as its proudly defiant moments, its waltz-like lilts and its relaxed lullaby figures. I particularly enjoyed the lovely episode at the heart of the movement, commencing at 4:50 where the piano repeatedly and dreamily sings the lovely simple three-note tune while the violin and cello gently weave tender comment. The Wanderer are not so well balanced or as exquisite here. Their reading is more urgent, more trenchant, agitated - but it does bound along infectiously. The Allegretto is a sort of irregular minuet, light and graceful in the hands of the Wanderer. At other moments there is a rougher edge and more violence by comparison with the more relaxed view of the gentle Florestan. The Florestan display heartfelt pleading in the lovely Andante and their dying phrases at its end are delectable. The Wanderer players’ Andante is pretty, their performance more passionate, more accentuated. Both Trios deliver frothy waltzes for the fourth movement Grazioso, pocco allegro with the Florestan’s reading a tad more restrained but more characterful. But it is the Wanderer Trio that is the most persuasive in the Finale. The two approaches are quite different. The Florestan players lagging behind their rivals by over one minute are more solemn, the atmosphere quite liturgical and their fugue deliberate and very Bach-like. The Wanderers are brisker, rhythmically much more energetic and pliable; in their hands the music bounds along to an exhilaratingly powerful climax.

Two splendid but different performances of Saint-Saëns’ accessible and lyrical Piano Trios. Each will appeal according to one’s mood. If pushed I would choose the Wanderer for the First Trio and the Florestan for the Second.

Ian Lace

see also review by Tony Haywood (May RECORDING OF THE MONTH)


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