Édouard Lalo, Piano Trio No. 3 in a minor, Op. 26

March 24, 2019

Edouard Lalo

Édouard Lalo, 1823-1892

Piano Trio No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 26, 1880

For much of the Classical and early Romantic eras, the outstanding French composers were primarily consumed with music for the theatre: opera, ballet and orchestral extrapolations. As such, a substantial tradition of French chamber music did not emerge until the late 19th century especially at the hands of such composers as Franck, Saint-Saëns and Fauré followed in a subsequent generation by Debussy and Ravel. There are numerous other composers in the historical mix but Édouard Lalo is particularly important. General music lovers will know him for the Symphonie espagnole and perhaps his cello concerto while, within France, he is famous for his grand opera Le roi d'Ys. But Lalo was among that first generation of French chamber music composers producing three piano trios, a string quartet, and a number of chamber duos including sonatas for violin and cello. Like many outstanding chamber music composers, Lalo was an accomplished chamber musician. As a professional violinist, in 1855 he became a founding member of the Armingaud Quartet whose mission was to raise chamber music awareness in France through performances of the solidifying canon, especially Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Lalo composed the bulk of his chamber music in the surrounding decade between 1848 and 1859 where, with a combination of composing and performing, he was a pioneer. Still, Lalo faced challenge and disappointment in the genres that mattered and between a fallow period and the failure of his grand opera Fiesque, Lalo struggled through the mid 1870’s.

Lalo finally witnessed his rise to fame in the late 1870’s with fresh support for his efforts from the Société Nationale and performances of his concertos by important musicians, particularly the winning Symphonie espagnole by Sarasate. Lalo began work on his greatest opera and, after a lapse of nearly 30 years, returned to the piano trio genre. He completed his third (and final) Trio in A Major, Op. 26 in 1880 arguably creating the first truly great French piano trio in the grand style. Though Frank and Saint-Saëns had broken ground earlier, Lalo’s is unquestionably a finer achievement, a more supreme representative of the emerging French school. It is a curious footnote that the very same year, a 17-year-old Debussy, while tutoring in Russia, composed his one and only piano trio, a charming but uncharacteristic student work.

A powerful, rich, epic work, Lalo’s third trio seems to achieve a rare artistic unity across the span of its four movements. Though usually labeled as “in A Minor”, the overall harmonic and dramatic progression is worth summarizing verbally though its indescribable musical reality is left to be experienced directly. The first movement Allegro appassionato sweeps and surges in the firm dark orbit of A-minor with the characteristic, formal ephemera in the relative major. The second movement is a surprisingly blistering Presto scherzo in D-minor with, again, only temporary respite in a softer trio that nonetheless slightly prickles with pizzicato. The third and longest movement is the remarkable and profound heart of the trio. By turns gentle, tragic, brave and finally serene, it steadfastly navigates the fraught journey from darkness into light preparing the ground for the radiant and majestic exuberance of the finale, resolutely in A-major. Whether one finds anything specifically French in Lalo’s manner, one will surely recognize the influence of his great musical idol: Robert Schumann.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.