Why these brilliant, melodically rich Lalo trios do not appear more often in concert remains the Sphinx’s own riddle.

LALO: Piano Trio No. 1 in c minor, Op. 7; Piano Trio No. 2 in b minor; Piano Trio No. 3 in a minor, Op. 26 – Leonore Piano Trio – Hyperion CDA68113, 79:16 (12/31/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Edouard Lalo (1823-1892), despite a prolific creative output, still survives in the popular mind via his Symphonie espagnole. While he never received the coveted Prix de Rome, he joined an association of composers – Duparc, Messager, Faure, D’Indy, and Chabrier –  who supported each other in their musical efforts. Their musical credo urged against “academicism” in artistic expression, and the 1850 Piano Trio No. 1 came about directly as a result of Lalo’s friendship with violinist Jules Armingaud and singer Edmond Membree, the latter of whom received the dedication of Op. 7.

Lalo consistently claimed Robert Schumann and the German tradition as his spiritual ancestors, and the c minor Trio bears witness to those influences. Elegant melodic lines pour forth from the cello (Gemma Rosefield) out the outset, and the two strings combine for lush harmony, with the keyboard part (Tim Horton) quite subdued until the closing pages. The second movement: Romance: Andante bears a lyric charm in the spirit of Mendelssohn, allowing violin Benjamin Nabarro his place in the sun, moving to a fertile blend of instruments after the repeat of the opening figures. Again, in the manner of Mendelssohn, the keyboard opens with repeated notes for the verve-laden Scherzo, taken up in a gavotte or polka style by the ensemble.  Piano and cello combine, then the violin adds its zesty color as we move to a “perfumed” trio section.  A cello solo opens the last movement, Recit ad lib – Allegro, whose impetus wafts aspects of both Mendelssohn and Schumann, often employing polyphonic means. Violin and cello enjoy lovely, liquid colloquy, while the piano introduces the possibility of modulations to the major mode; but the intention remains well within c minor, which triumphs with a resounding tread, lento, pesante.

The four-movement b minor Trio (1852) extends Lalo’s debts to Schumann, opening, Allegro maestoso, with forthright octaves into a dotted rhythm that leads to a canon. Piano arpeggios underline a hymn tune for a secondary theme, most delicately persuasive. The stentorian development might be mistaken for early Brahms, given the solidity of the piano line. Rosenfield’s cello certainly makes points while Horton’s arpeggios later shimmer in aquatic sonorities. The impressive violin part recalls that Lalo deciated the work to “his friend J. Armingaud.”  The recapitulation employs resonant canon and stretto techniques to dramatize the last pages.

Lalo’s gift for melody certainly rises to the occasion for the Andante con moto, wherein violinist Nabarro shines. An assortment of triplet figures, accompanied by tremolos in the strings, stretches the melody forth, a veritable song without words. The close microphone placement (rec. 19-21 December 2014) captures the plaintive beauty of the ensemble, courtesy of Recording Engineer Phil Rowlands. The violin figures prominently – with a three-note figure – for the Minuetto: Allegretto, which relies heavily on imitation and pizzicato effects in the course of its Haydnesque spirit. The piano sets the dance in motion, soon joined in canon by his companions for a rustic clogging. The minor mode Trio section extends the through-composed nature of the frolic, with the violin motif’s now serving a ‘galant’ purpose. The finale, Allegro agitato, establishes a martial tone in the keyboard, a theme that might begin a piano sonata, but the violin and cello enter to ‘console’ the mood.  Some cross-rhythmic effects move the music forward, once more tending to a chorale-like theme. The rhythmic dash of this movement might well be attributed to the Mendelssohn of the d minor Trio.  Lalo, too, urges the music to a richly scored conclusion, tutta forza, that blazes in double octaves.
Lalo’s 1880 Trio in a minor celebrates his accession as a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.  The influence of Schumann reigns supreme in the opening Allegro appassionato, whose capacity for modulation has expanded Lalo’s musical syntax closer to the searching, interior world of Cesar Franck. The melodic gift has not diminished, and violin and cello sing over punctuated chords from Horton’s Steinway. The musical surprise comes at the coda: where we expect a stunning peroration, Lalo softens the impulse in the strings to a dolcissimo sigh.  What follows, Presto – given its future, literal transposition as his own Scherzo in d minor for orchestra –  qualifies as a sonic rebellion, a likely homage to Berlioz, whose music Lalo openly admired.  The Franck color pervades the ensuing, expansive Tres lent, a movement wrought in long melodic periods – perhaps hinting at the great Schubert C Major Quintet – in the manner of an arched lament. Horton’s superlative keyboard playing here more than suggests that the Franck Piano Quintet should occupy the Leonore’s next effort, with an added violin.  The finale, Allegro molto, borrows a series of Schumann’s effects: dotted rhythm, triplet figures, and a relatively demure secondary theme.  The last pages reveal the iconoclast in Lalo, hurling wrong notes in cadences that smack of Haydn and Beethoven’s wit. Why these trios do not appear more often in concert remains the Sphinx’s very own riddle.

—Gary Lemco