Napoléon-Henri Reber has rather slipped musical history’s moorings. Born in 1807 and named after you-know-who, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the rather elderly age of 21. There he studied harmony with Reicha and composition with Le Sueur - as Berlioz had also done - and though he was soon to be expelled from their classes, as Charlotte Loriot relates in her interesting notes, the damage wasn’t lasting; years later he came back as professor of harmony and then composition, and his students included Sarasate and Massenet, who said of him; ‘He was an exquisite, delicate musician, of the race of the 18th century masters. His music gave off all its fragrance’. This was something Saint-Saëns also perceived; ‘’the exquisite urbanity of his manners evoked the idea of a bygone era…he was not of his time, nor of any time.’
What of the music? Specifically what of the piano trios here, of which Numbers and 5 are apparently making their first-ever appearance on disc? Certainly they’re rooted in Classical procedure, but I wouldn’t say that they evoke the eighteenth century. They’re certainly not pastiche. Instead Reber clearly looked to more recent models for his finely laid out trios, and infused them to create an aesthetic that is classically graceful but not soppy. The G minor Trio, by some distance the longest of the three here, was composed in 1862. There are certainly evocations of Beethoven - I hear what Duke Ellington would have termed a ‘tone parallel’ to the finale of the Moonlight Sonatain the piano writing of the first movement. Obviously it was meant to be encoded, heard, and saluted. It’s a deftly lyrical work, though over-extended in places. There are touches of the salon - where he had a natural metier - not least in the slow movement but (much more excitingly) also an operatic scena in the dialogue between violin and piano. The finale has elements of a spinning song about it; once again it calls for, and here receives, deft articulation.
The companion trios are well contrasted. The 1872 Fifth Piano Trio has Viennese elegance at its core and a hint of the Schubertian; the finale reminds one, perhaps, of The Trout. The 1880 Trio is one of his very last works, being completed in the year that he died. Vigorously Schubertian, its high point is a slowly unravelling E major chanson with some delightfully decorative piano cornicing to be heard. Despite the girth of the Third Trio - the Fifth is by a distance the most compact - it’s this earlier Trio that most interested me.
It’s no small help that the Trio Élégiaque is a worthy guide and characterises the music with perception.