Saint-Saëns Festival – Piano Trios

Piano Trio No.1 in F, Op.18
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, Op.92

Florestan Trio
[Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin) & Richard Lester (cello)]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This winning way to spend a Sunday morning was a great success for the Saint-Saëns Festival, pairing the light and witty First Piano Trio with its more ambitious later sibling (there was nearly 30 years between them, 1864 and 1892).

The First is so genial that the pairing of both together can make perhaps the harder-won Second a poor relation. Saint-Saëns recognised his own ability of “writing music as an apple tree produces apples” – as Anthony Marwood reminded the audience in his relaxed and witty introduction to the Second – and he couldn’t help write good tunes. It was the very success of the F major Trio that inspired other French composers to chamber music, and Saint-Saëns himself was instrumental (no pun intended) in setting up the Société Nationale de Musique, which ensured that trend continued. But the Second Piano Trio was obviously more of a trial – four years to write and having to meet the popularity of the first. Its five movements are all more serious in tone, and I suppose there is a case for playing them in reverse order.

The eerie stress on the final beat of the main theme of the F major’s slow movement (annotator Gerald Larner concluding that this is a reference to Saint-Saëns’s holiday in the Pyranees while writing the work) is perhaps indicative of the composer’s natural way with music, and the middle trio section of the following scherzo also has a drone-like musette feel to it. By contrast the fugue in the final movement of the E minor trio appeals more to Saint-Saëns’s academic side. The Florestan Trio was at one with Saint-Saëns’s every mood-swing.

The performances were beautifully judged, not only in themselves, but to fit in what I have always regarded as the awkward Wigmore acoustic. However, Susan Tomes is a pianist that knows it well and, with the piano placed towards the back of the platform (which certainly helps) she was aware never to drown out her string partners. With balance sorted, the performances could go with the music and for an hour and ten minutes the harsh realities of the real world were banished.

Music is at its best therapeutic. If only doctors could offer Saint-Saëns on the National Health, Britain I’m sure would be a better place. It is a wonder that his innate musicality has not found more adherents, although if all Steven Isserlis’s collaborators in this modest but pioneering Festival were to programme more of Saint-Saëns’s works in their programmes, then things would start to move forward at an appreciable rate.

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