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SAINT-SAENS: Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major & No. 2 in E Minor – Aquinas Piano Trio – Guild

SAINT-SAENS: Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18; Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 92 – Aquinas Piano Trio – Guild GMCD 7408, 61:08 (3/1/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****: 

Recorded 22-23 February 2013 at the Wyastone Concert Hall, the two piano trios of Saint-Saens, from 1863 and 1892, respectively, find admirable apostles in the Aquinas Piano Trio: Ruth Rogers, violin; Katherine Jenkinson, cello; and Martin Cousin, piano. Saint-Saens, who knew the Beethoven canon intimately, conceived his F Major Trio according to the Bonn master’s four-movement prescriptions, albeit in a jovial cast of mind. The immediacy of effect of the Allegro vivace strikes us in its genial application of duple and triple meter centers, the piano part typically bravura in runs and digital fluency. A moving transition to D-flat Major prior to the coda reminds us of the affective writing in the composer’s First Concerto in that key, Op. 17. 

The surprise of the F Major Trio lies in the expansive A Minor Andante, and its somber beauty may pay homage to the composer’s fondness for the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. The beauty of violinist Ruth Roger’s 1691 Guarnerius instrument shines through this evocation of an Auvergne folk song. The middle section evokes a bagpipe sonority, again indebted to another Guarnerius creation, cellist Jenkinson’s 1693 instrument. More of the Beethoven influence saturates the Presto movement, with its one-in-a-bar pulse that might draw inspiration from the Archduke Trio or the Sixth Symphony. If the tacit presence of Mendelssohn seems nigh, that cannot be totally an illusion. The final Allegro invests two themes with Rondo treatment, the first tune built from sequential scraps and arpeggios in manner gratifying to Beethoven and Schubert both. Cello and piano recall the theme of the Andante. Martin Cousin thrives in ravishing, often delicate,  keyboard colors in this music, so we might rightly claim his presence in the Saint-Saens concertos.  Instrumental balances courtesy of recording engineer Simon Eadon remain blissfully transparent.

We must assume the penchant of composer Saint-Saens for the Algerian environs assumes responsibility for the arresting, exotic opening of the E Minor Trio, in which each of the three instruments sings an air of mystery and undulating, stylized glamour. Cast in five movements in the manner of a Mozart salon divertimento, the ambitious work opens Allegro non troppo, which forces its airs of mystery into “civilized” bottles. Through-composed, the diversely colored, musical materials all derive from the beginning tissue, another example of Saint-Saens’ esteemed economy of means. Here, the outstanding instrumental definition results from the ministrations of recording engineer Eric James.

The essentially Romantic character of the ensuing four movements wishes to claim Schumann as a predecessor, Saint-Saens perhaps thinking of Rhenish Symphony’s architecture. A move to 5/8 and 5/4 pulsation institutes a nervous, sometimes explosive, tension in the variant-laden Allegretto, in which Jenkinson’s cello sings a briefly ardent tune before the long, plastic keyboard runs from Cousin.  Cousin and Jenkinson apply their silken gifts to the Andante con moto, a song without words of captivating simplicity. Marked Grazioso, poco allegro, the fourth movement proffers a Saint-Saens waltz, wherein Rogers’ violin assumes the principal voice, and Cousin adds his breezy figures. The Beethoven ethos returns for the Allegro finale, a chordal motif of some seriousness that invites polyphonic development and more daring fioritura from the keyboard. A rondo, yes, but informed by Bach’s penchant for counterpoint that had always impressed Saint-Saens. The “learned” style quite dominates, a fusion of inspiration and technique the composer had demonstrated as well in his Op. 75 Violin Sonata last movement.

—Gary Lemco

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