SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major; Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor – Vienna Piano Trio – MD&G

by | Dec 14, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18; Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 92 – Vienna Piano Trio – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus & Grimm (MD&G) multichannel SACD (and 2+2+2) MDG 942 1763-6, 64:07 [Distr. by E1] *****:
I have a friend who owns a vast collection of classical music, mostly on vinyl. He used to have get-togethers at which he and his guests could pick a recording from the collection and use it to try to stump the others in attendance. Of course, the idea was not to stump folks with a piece by some anonymous hack but by a well-known composer who just happens not to sound like himself in a particular piece. At one such gathering, I managed to stump everyone with the weirdly evocative “Chorus of the Dervishes” from Beethoven’s incidental music to The Ruins of Athens. Well, if you find yourself at a similar gathering (not likely, but. . .), the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No. 1 might just be the trick. I might be wrong, but I think it’s sinuous playful first melody with its Iberian overtones will throw the crowd for a loop.
Trio No. 1 is the work of a young Saint-Saëns (aged 28), and it has the fresh-faced enthusiasm that would be replaced in time by a certain reactionary stuffiness, so I wouldn’t agree with the notes to this recording, which opine that “no substantial development or other stylistic change is perceptible in his music. The form, the balance of Classical music was always his model.” That may be true in essence, but in his early career Saint-Saëns allowed himself much more latitude in the way of romantic expression than he did later on. Plus there’s a thoroughly attractive naïve charm about the First Trio that was replaced later on by, well, a learned charm, which is a poor substitute. Maybe the problem, as one critic has stated it recently, is that Saint-Saëns simply lived too long and wrote too many works (some three hundred) to be taken as seriously as he should be. I’d agree with that wholeheartedly: Saint-Saëns should certainly be known for more than the Organ Symphony and The Carnival of the Animals. Luckily, recordings such as the present one prove how very much more there is to this composer.
There’s a playful insouciance about three of the movements in the First Trio, but I find the second movement, said to be based on a folk song of the Auvergne, has a haunting quality about that recalls the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (Opus 70 No. 1). Maybe the Beethoven trio was a model for Saint-Saëns, since in just the same way, the ghostly air of the slow movement is quickly dispelled by the sunny music that follows. At any rate, I’ve always been a fan of Saint-Saëns’ fresh-sounding Trio No. 1, with its touches of the mysterious and the slightly alien.
Saint-Saëns’ remarkably long life meant that he often revisited a genre many years after his first stab at it. Usually, the first stab is the favorite with audiences; this is so in the case of the two cello concertos, the two violin sonatas, and, though lesser known, the two trios. It often happened that in his later works, Saint-Saëns was experimenting, either in technical or expressive ways. For example, the solo part of his Second Cello Concerto is so complex that he had to write it on two staffs, and his study of French music of the eighteenth century (he edited the music of Rameau) informed the Second Violin Sonata. That study may have influenced Saint-Saëns to make the unusual decision to cast his Second Piano Trio in a suite-like five movements and include extensive, complex contrapuntal elements in the last movement. Whatever the truth of the matter, I find that both of these children of Saint-Saëns’ imagination are very much worth knowing.
There are a number of recordings of these works available—expectedly, there are about twice as many of the First Trio as of the Second.  I’m familiar with several of them and believe there are so many virtues in the playing of the Vienna Piano Trio and in MD&G’s outstanding surround-sound recording that if you want to investigate these fine works, you need not turn elsewhere. The Vienna players approach the First Trio with all the youthful insouciance that’s typical of early Saint-Saëns, while their performance of the Second Trio has the right balance of tenderness and Classical rigor that marks much of later Saint-Saëns. If you don’t know these attractive pieces, right here is the best way to experience them.
—Lee Passarella

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