Thursday, April 9, 2015

Trio Latitude 41 CD: Insight into the vigor and elegance of Saint-Saens through his two piano trios

Though both works have their strengths, it's canny of Trio Latitude 41 to avoid chronological order in its new Eloquentia disc of works for violin, cello, and piano by Camille Saint-Saens.

Livia Sohn (from left), Luigi Piovano, and Bernadene Blaha
That's because Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 92, is the more astonishing — both formally and expressively. Both compositions are worth further acquaintance, however, particularly in performances so vivid and cohesive. Following the five-movement E-minor comes Opus 18, the more genial — if less ingenious — F major trio, op. 18, to conclude the program.

In op. 92, Saint-Saens bookends the slow movement, in which each instrument is given eloquent solo passages, with a couple of dance movements. The latter one, a waltz marked "Grazioso, poco allegro," lives up to its gracious designation, as is typical of the composer. Yet it has some less than blithe coloring that contributes to its complexity. The first movement, with piano arpeggios undergirding a long-breathed melody shared by the string instruments, takes in a lot of expressive territory. The finale, from its portentous opening now, demonstrates why Saint-Saens is sometimes called the French Beethoven.

It was here that I became desirous of a more forward piano sound. I don't believe pianist Bernadene Blaha was holding back; it seems more an engineering matter. And while the disc's sound is under discussion, I found myself admiring Luigi Piovano's cello much more than Livia Sohn's violin. This was before I read on the jacket that he's playing a 1710 Gagliano and she is playing a modern instrument. I'm no old-instrument snob, but I found this cello evokes the warm, enveloping sound we associate with analog recording; the violin, in contrast, has that glossy digital imprint we have had to grow used to as the CD norm.

This is not to gainsay the excellence of the playing and the unity of the ensemble's approach to this music. And in contrasting the two pieces, there is no basis for disparaging op. 18. I was particularly charmed by the folk-like tune that lends a fairytale atmosphere to the "Andante," and I loved the "Scherzo," which, allowing for the fact that of course it could not be sung, is based on material reminiscent of a comic-opera vocal ensemble.

The disc is supported by a worthwhile organization to promote French Romantic music. As for this ensemble, its unusual name derives from the fact that the cellist's hometown (Rome) and the site of the trio's initial concerts (Rhode Island) share the same northern latitude on the globe. The group shows evidence here of meriting a global reputation as well.