Saint-Saëns Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2; La Muse et le Poète
Gould Piano Trio
Champs Hill Records CHRCD140 79:51 mins
A friend said the other day, ‘It’s funny, you never hear people say “Ooh, that must be Saint-Saëns”, in the way they do “It must be Wagner”, or even “It must be Chabrier”.’ Yet listening to Saint- Saëns, you’re nearly always carried along seamlessly from one idea to the next. Perhaps that’s the problem: as Berlioz is believed to have said of the young Saint-Saëns, ‘All he lacks is inexperience.’ The two piano trios, one early (1863) and one mid-period (1892), and the improvisatory La Muse et le Poète of 1909 are all chock full of ideas, some involving highly unusual textures and rhythms and, in the later Trio, harmonies and melodic lines that disprove the charge of the composer as fossil. But the ‘ooh’ factor is, for me, absent. Does it matter? Interpreters might be tempted to decorate the music with ‘expressive’ deformations, but happily not here, where rhythms are taut (note the smart double- dotting in the second movement of the first Trio) and melodies played as written.
There are moments, too, of magic, as in the first movement of the second Trio when first violin, then cello creep in from nowhere; and one particular pleasure is that throughout we are given real pianissimos. Once or twice the cello is masked by the piano, and the tempo of the 5/8 Basque zortziko in the Second Trio is just that bit too slow for the dance to flow as it should. But overall these performances do the composer proud.