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Schubert Tomes

Saint-Saëns Piano Trios Op 18 & Op 92

The Florestan Trio

Hyperion CDA67538

Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) was immensely successful during his long lifetime but disparaged during my earlier listening years. There are plenty of Saint-Saëns jokes: Berlioz voted against him for the Prix de Rome, observing that he "lacked inexperience" and he used to be famously put down as "the greatest composer who was not a genius".

A serious revaluation is underway comparatively recently, and if you've heard enough of the Carnival of the Animals, Samson and Dalila and the Organ Symphony, then this fine CD may surprise you. The two piano trios certainly both deserve the attention of The Florestan Trio, and few pianists could present the piano parts, which claim most attention, as elegantly as Susan Tomes.

I had never encountered the first trio (1863) until now, but we had been bowled over by the very different, massive second (1892) when first heard at one of London's South Place Sunday evening chamber concerts. I located the date of the second - not supplied by Hyperion - on an Amazon page where you can sample them both in the Joachim Trio's recommended Naxos recording.

No. 2 is in five movements, the substantial outer ones like supporting pillars, with three slighter ones in the middle; a pose from the Florestans' photo shoot echoes this trio's structure perfectly!

Wagnerian fever had left behind the more conservative French composers, but this trio can stand on its own beside Tchaikovsky's and (dare one say?) the problematic Schubert No 2, about which Susan Tomes has written as being a daunting marathon for the pianist. Chamber music was no longer for amateurs to play at home. It begins deceptively iwth repeated chords marked 'very lightly' (extremely difficult on a modern concert grand) we are told - which makes Musical Pointers wonder whether there will one day be a recording on contemporary instruments?

The inner movements are perhaps more listener friendly, the second sounding very natural in five-time, the middle one a heartfelt andante, the fourth a charming waltz. The finale has a fugual passage and towards the end a running passage for all three instruments in unison octaves, which makes Hyperion's commentator think of a virtuoso organ pedal solo, before finishing in 'a mood of powerful determination'.

I think you might do well, as we did, to acquaint yourself with this formidable and rather serious work first, and then relax with the younger composer's first trio. Its first movement has an attractive rhythmic ambiguity, the second evokes a hurdy-gurdy in the French mountains, the nonchalant scherzo becoming a stamping peasant dance, suggests Robert Philip, and the sparkling finale has glittering piano arpeggios leading to a witty conclusion.

Fauré's piano quintets (Hyperion CDA66766, 1994) recorded by Domus have been received for review as a serendipitous spin-off after being reminded of their unique wonder (courtesy of Judith Weir), and shortly after reviewing the re-release of Saint-Saëns' two piano trios above. With Anthony Marwood as additional violinist, this delectable recording is in a sense a bridge between Domus and Susan Tomes' new ensemble The Florestan Trio; my illustrations show how publicity photos have changed in a decade!

Saint-Saens provided the young Faure with an intimate knowledge of the contrapuntal techniques of Bach. In addition, whereas Saint-Saens was a fully-fledged keyboard virtuoso, Fauré was more simply an able pianist. From these facts proceed significant features of his chamber output. Fauré's language is habitually the language of seamless flow, almost never of dramatic interruption.His 'rhetoric' refers most usefully to a generalized - yet distinctive ­ sense of emotional elevation in the music but the unfolding of texture remains smoothly organic in every sense. - - For Fauré's textures to move seamlessly they must also blend to perfection at any given point - - the strings as a group are often far from reticent, but the balance of canonic skill and natural melody weaves a pervasive web of harmonic richness, and into this the piano often fits either as unobtrusive equal in the dialogue or as a rhythmically subdivided version of the strings' chordal movement. - - In truth, however, they are by turns passionate, ethereal, melancholic, even whimsical. Superficial they are not, and it is their inherent tendency to reward only close attention which sees them too casually dismissed or damned with faint praise.(Francis Pott)

Florestan Photo: Richard Lewisohn
Domus Photo:Malcolm Crowthers/Virgin


© Peter Grahame Woolf