In 1879, Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) launched himself into the composition of the Piano Trio in A Minor, Op.26, dedicated to his friend, the female pianist Szarvady. A brilliant string performer in his own right, he had long displayed a fondness for chamber music. However, frequently subjected to the stinging criticism of his peers for indulging in an “outdated” genre, he eventually turned to the almost exclusive composition of popular works for larger ensembles around 1856. Twenty years later, having gained confidence from the success of a number of these pieces (e.g., Symphonie Espagnole), he made a spectacular return to the realm of chamber music, presenting the Parisian public with a new masterpiece, his third trio.
A brief fortissimo seems to call us to order: Lalo marks his return with the power of an Allegro appassionato. A broad, lyrical melody soon surfaces in the strings, before the piano makes its presence felt with a new heroic theme. These two contrasting ideas dominate the entire movement, which alternates freely between tenderness and assertiveness. This is followed by a dolcissimo section in which the ensemble fades away in a brief truce before the mad rush of the Presto—a movement made famous by the composer’s reorchestration of 1884 (Scherzo).
The listener is then swept away by a cheerful, spiralling passage set into motion by a stubbornly repeated rhythmic motive in the piano, accentuated here and there by certain notes from the string melody. The perpetual motion calms itself temporarily with an equally ingenious rhythm, only to regain its momentum with renewed vigour. It is in the movement marked Très lent that the trio finally relaxes, giving rise to a long and mysterious reverie led by the expressive singing line of the right hand of the piano along with the strings doubling at the octave. The work ends with a spirited Allegro molto in a lively rhythm, leading the listener first through the meanderings of motivic explorations, and then through the tiny surgings of a humorous theme. The spectacular coda seems to mark the final victory of the composer over a public who had been cuttingly hostile for far too long.
The splendour of Mendelssohn’s second trio recalls that of Lalo’s third, the two composers, despite differing paths, revealing the full extent of their musical talents in these works. At times revelling in orchestral brilliance, at times shrouded in pianistic intimacy, these two compositions demonstrate the unmistakable Romanticism of nineteenth-century chamber music.