ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Piano Trio No.1 in F Major, Op. 18
Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor, Op. 92
Camille Saint-Saëns was, like Mozart and Mendelssohn, precocious in his musical talents, first shown after piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first twenty-one years of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the French government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and her aunt, who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the same time he showed an aptitude for and interest in a wide variety of subjects. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halevy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist and organist and as a composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers.
A member of the circle of Pauline Viardot, a valued friend, Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871 he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. His great-aunt died in 1872 and three years later he contracted a marriage which came to an abrupt end six years later, after the earlier death of his two sons. He was left alone by the death of his mother in 1888 and spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog. By the time of his own death in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life and Stravinsky had already, some eight years earlier, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in war-time he might have been more productively employed. Abroad he retained his reputation. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, his music continued to appeal to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor's, for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.
Saint-Saëns wrote his Piano Trio in F major, Opus 18, in 1863 at a particularly successful period of his life, when he enjoyed at home the care of his mother and her aunt and outside a very considerable reputation as a musician. The first movement of the trio, marked Allegro vivace, shows all the clarity of Mendelssohn, coupled with a particularly French harmonic vocabulary. The figure with which the main theme opens, introduced by the cello, is of considerable importance in what follows, music that explores the possibilities of violin and cello, together with piano writing of some brilliance. The Andante is based on an angular A minor theme, moving briefly to the relaxation of a song-like major section before the return of the original melody. This is followed by a Scherzo that starts with a playful pizzicato and includes two syncopated trio sections in contrasting keys. The final Allegro, which opens with the piano providing an accompaniment to antiphonal use of violin and cello, has a second theme of contrapuntal possibilities that always seem about to be more fully realised. The movement allows the piano further opportunities for delicate brilliance, leading to an unexpected conclusion.
Nearly thirty years were to pass before Saint-Saëns returned to the form of the piano trio in his Trio in E minor, Opus 92, written in 1892. The choice of key suggests a more sombre work and the first movement opens with a principal theme for the violin and cello, with the piano providing a series of widely spaced chords in music of growing intensity and piano figuration of greater brilliance, leading to a moving secondary theme in E major. A version of this material is repeated before a dramatic excursion into a grandiloquent development of the themes and a histrionic coda, ending with an unexpected form of plagal cadence. The second movement opens with music of tender delicacy, its major mode contradicted by an ominous section in E minor. A gentle return to the earlier material leads to an Allegro passage with piano writing of particular brilliance. The cello brings back the original theme and mood, followed by the violin, before the return of the minor episode and a return to the brilliance of the Allegro, now in A minor. The final section starts in the mood of the opening of the movement and ends with a direct gentle reminiscence of the principal theme, before the final certainty of the closing bars. The third movement, marked Andante con moto, and appassionato is introduced by the piano, followed by the cello, in an A flat melody of descending contour, later taken up by the violin. The same material, used with harmonic ingenuity, forms the substance of the movement. This is followed by a G major movement marked Grazioso, poco allegro, its cheerful principal theme allotted first to the piano. An E major episode intervenes, before the return of the main theme and its further development. The composer's fertile powers of melodic invention are again displayed in the final Allegro, which starts with an E minor melodic line from the piano, abetted then by violin and cello, before what promises to be contrapuntal treatment, which actually appears later, when the violin announces a fugal subject, answered in turn by piano and cello, and later fully combined with the first theme of the movement. A moto perpetuo version of this theme provides an exciting conclusion to a work of brilliance and imagination, a significant addition to the piano trio repertoire.
After an appearance as soloist with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the 1992 Cheltenham Festival, Rebecca Hirsch was greeted by one distinguished critic as "an amazing soloist, a new star in the ascendant". She has also appeared with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Ulster Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Orchestra. As guest leader she has performed with the English Chamber Orchestra and with the London sinfonietta at the 1994 Proms. Two concerto CDs have been released to great critical acclaim and she recently gave the world premiere of Sorensen's Violin Concerto in Copenhagen.
Caroline Dearnley is acknowledged as one of the finest chamber music cellists of her generation. She has performed with such artists as Robert Cohen, Grend Causse, Nicholas Daniel and the Brodsky Quartet and has led the cello sections of the Philharmonia, Britten sinfonia and London Musici. A recent concerto performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London was described in The Times as "eloquent ...an exquisitely crafted performance." She has recorded extensively including a first solo disc of Brahms cello sonatas.
John Lenehan is one of Britain's most experienced and sought after chamber musicians. He regularly partners Julian Lloyd Webber and Nigel Kennedy and has worked with many other leading instrumentalists including James Galway, John Harle, Steven Isserlis and Tasmin Little. During the last few seasons he has appeared in major concert halls in London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Salzburg, New York, Washington and Tokyo and has made a number of recordings for major record companies.