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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]
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The Florestan Trio are fast becoming the Beaux Arts of our time – impeccable and subtle musicianship allied to a keen virtuosity that has ensured them an international following. They continue their trawl through the seemingly endless piano trio repertoire, where so many composers have been inspired to produce their very best. It appears they are on to another real winner here, with two superb pieces that are a programmer’s delight – contrasting works from early and late in the composer’s career that fit neatly onto one disc.

I have to confess both pieces were new to me, but as with so much Saint-Saëns, once you start listening it’s as if you’ve known them all your life. The melodic invention is really on an exalted level, as is the impeccable technical craftsmanship. The first movement of the F major has such a breezy, open-air lyricism that it did not surprise me at all to learn the composer had been inspired to write it during a holiday in the Pyrenees. The main theme nags in the memory for days, not least due to the players’ natural, unforced phrasing, which lets the lines ‘breathe’ so easily. It really is wonderfully warm yet vital playing and not easily achieved, as pianist Susan Tomes’ excellent, penetrating book ‘Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music’ makes abundantly clear. They are equally persuasive in the solemn, wistful andante that follows, with its rustic hurdy-gurdy drone and folk-like simplicity. Robert Philip’s thorough liner note tells us that the indigenous music of France’s mountain region was probably the composer’s inspiration here, and there is also a rustic feel to the breezy, almost cheeky scherzo, whose stamping syncopations have a peasant dance quality to them. The finale opens in a deceptively simple fashion before building into something grander and the Florestan’s pacing allows this growth to happen with subtlety, whilst Tomes in particular makes the most of the characteristic flair and exuberance that mark the later stages of the movement.

Nearly thirty years separate the F major from its partner, the Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, and the musical climate around the composer had changed. By the 1890s he was now seen as rather old-fashioned and isolated, mainly because of his opposition to the Wagner-mania that swept Paris and French music generally. He was determined that none of the intense chromaticism that epitomised this trend would invade his own music and he stuck resolutely to his compositional principles The piece is certainly on a bigger scale than the first with an impressive arch-like five-movement structure. Philip suggests that Saint-Saëns may have had the massive Piano Trio of Tchaikovsky in mind in his opening theme, and it certainly has some of that work’s broad, sombre grandeur, though the texture does give way to a more typical transparency fairly soon. Tomes is again on stirring form here, making the most of the cascading waves of repeated chords. The second movement also hints at the Russian in its use of five-time, as in the Pathétique’s counterpart, but it ends more gently than it began and overall has the feeling of an irregular minuet. The following two movements are brief, simple and affecting, but the finale returns us to the grander scale of the opening. There is the almost inevitable fugue part way through, then echoes of previous movements before the whole thing pushes on to a sweeping, octave-led climax.

The Florestan play with a warmth and homogeneity that is hard to resist, though they do not have the field to themselves. Among recent contenders is an excellent budget version from the Joachim Trio on Naxos, which I’ve sampled on the Naxos website. Musical as it is, they seem a shade lacking in overall intensity compared to the Florestan. There is also a very well-received Harmonia Mundi disc by the Wanderer Trio which I haven’t heard, though reviews suggest their playing is full of fire and vigour, so may be worth seeking out to compare if you’re undecided. Suffice it to say that if you’re a fan of the Florestan Trio or buy the disc on impulse, you most certainly will not be disappointed. The recording, supervised as ever by Andrew Keener, is rich and detailed and the afore-mentioned notes by Susan Tomes’ real-life partner Robert Philip, are a model of scholarly enthusiasm. Recommended without reservation.

Tony Haywood



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