SAINT-SAËNS Piano Trios (Gould Piano Trio)
‘A conversation between two instruments instead of a debate between two virtuosos’ is how Saint-Saëns described La Muse et le poète, written for piano trio in 1909, then orchestrated as a concertante work for violin and cello, and now included in its original form on the Gould Trio’s disc of the composer’s chamber music. ‘Two instruments’, one notices, not three, since Saint-Saëns very much relegates the piano to the role of accompanist in contrast to the closely woven instrumentation of the piano trios proper.
Listening to it, you’re left wondering if the second version was already on Saint-Saëns’s mind when he began the first, as the piano part, with its tremolandos and grand but brief interjections, sounds more like a transcription of an orchestral original, rather than the other way round. The Goulds, as one might expect, do fine things with it. This really is a conversation piece, with cellist Alice Neary responding to Lucy Gould’s lofty violin phrases with lyrical warmth and the occasional moment of truculence, while pianist Benjamin Frith gently but firmly mediates between the two. That it feels at times discursive is Saint-Saëns’s responsibility, not theirs.
The two piano trios, much underrated, could also perhaps be described as conversation pieces, albeit between three even-handed participants. In his booklet note, Terry Blain writes perceptively on how Saint-Saëns’s determination to keep private emotions out of his output is often undermined by the depth of feeling the best of it contains, and the Goulds’ interpretations carefully probe the resulting ambiguities without losing sight of formal logic or musical argument for a second.
You can’t help but notice the way the First Trio’s bleak Andante casts a shadow over the Classical poise of the movements that surround it, or how the imposing, five-movement structure of the Second is at times threatened by rhythmic instability and harmonic or melodic uncertainty before its tensions are replaced – rather than resolved – by stark abstraction in the fugal finale. Drama and refinement combine in the playing, too, and nothing seems forced or overstated, with tone and mood immaculately judged. The recording itself is beautifully balanced: listening on headphones, I really felt as if I were sitting in a room with the Goulds themselves at a private performance for an audience of one. Very fine.