Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Trio No. 1 in F major Op.18 (1863) [28.45]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op.92 (1892) [34.42]
La Muse et le Poète Op.132 (1909) [15.48]
Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (violin), Benjamin Frith (piano)
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, England, 2016
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD140 [79.51]
It is well worth putting Saint-Saëns in perspective. He was born in the same year that Bellini wrote his last opera I Puritani (and himself died), and died the year Edgar Varèse wrote his raucous, modernist depiction of New York City Amériques, not to mention the premiere of Janáček's Káťa Kabanová. So when people complain that Saint-Saëns was rather conservative in his later years, can we be at all surprised? And does it matter anyway? He spent a lifetime being criticised for being out of step, either in front or behind the times. He was a prodigy as pianist, organist and composer and much admired by the likes of Berlioz, Rossini and Liszt. His long life was devoted not only to composition, performing and teaching, but also to travelling and to writing on a wide range of topics, including social issues. There were and are statues and museums dedicated to him. So it is unfortunate that his reputation is somewhat dogged by his being a bit of a one-work composer, with the Carnival of the Animals being that one, quite late, work. Since the composer regarded this as a frivolous chip off the workbench, which he did not really want published, it is ironic that it has eclipsed a huge output that has remained underperformed. A major exception is the justly famous Symphony No.3 in C minor 'with organ', which is actually a very strong contender for the accolade of 'best French symphony'. (Yes, that ignores Debussy's La Mer, which is arguably the actual 'best French symphony' despite the fact that the composer did not so name it). Saint-Saëns’s large catalogue of music covers all the usual genres: there are many operas, including Samson et Dalila, five symphonies, several concertos each for piano, for violin and for cello, symphonic poems, a lot of chamber music and of course acres of songs.
The first Piano Trio, written when the composer was in his late twenties, is a cheerful and tuneful piece for much of its time. The first movement has a bucolic air. The second has a rustic tone with the violin and cello employed to make a drone to which the piano plays a gently melancholy accompaniment. The presto scherzo movement is lively and ripples along. The finale returns to the mood of the opening and seems to occupy a carefree world quite unlike, for example, Schumann's much more serious essays in the form. The second trio is a very different matter. It is a longer and more serious composition, encompassing five movements and lasting a quite substantial 35 minutes. Only one movement, the Grazioso fourth movement in waltz time, sounds carefree. The remainder can only be described as various flavours of serious, even tumultuous. The booklet note by music journalist Terry Blain quotes the composer: "Art is intended to create beauty and character. Feeling only comes afterwards and art can very well do without it. In fact it is better off when it does." One is tempted to add, "discuss", and put that statement into a suitable exam paper for philosophers and/or musicians. The Piano Trio Op.92 is most definitely struggling with something. There is plenty written about Saint-Saëns's demons. Huge and life-long success did not make him happy and this trio lets some of that out. The final item on a well filled CD is the chamber version of his "conversation between two instruments" La Muse et le Poète. Here the orchestral part is taken by the piano and the two string players have complex solos that stretch their skills to the utmost.
There are plenty of recordings of these pieces in the catalogue but no comparisons were possible. The only things I can say with some confidence is that the performances are very accomplished and the recordings quite remarkably clean and clear. The Champs Hill Music Room is a lovely venue and was built for recording as well as small-scale performance. Here it shines and engineer Patrick Allen is to be congratulated on a job extremely well done. As an aside, despite nice photos, I was unable to find the names of the Gould Piano Trio anywhere in the booklet or on the cover. The web fortunately came to the rescue and they are listed above.