One of the hidden sub-themes of Suntory Hall’s Chamber Music Garden 2021 has been the centenary of Saint-Saëns, with an opportunity to hear his two charming Piano Trio no. 1 in F major played by different groups: the brilliant Aoi Trio (19th June; and the period instrument trio of Naruhiko Kawaguchi (fortepiano), Akira Harada (violin) and Hitomi Niikura (cello), devoted the whole second half of their concert to the composer’s chamber oeuvre (25th June).

Akira Harada, Naruhiko Kawaguchi and Hitomi Niikura
© Suntory Hall

Kawaguchi, Harada and Niikura, who first came together as a group for last year’s Chamber Music Garden (held as an online event) performing a programme of mainly French chamber music including Debussy’s piano trio, returned this year to perform to a full audience in the Blue Rose hall. The group’s programme was clearly inspired by the hall’s 1867 Érard piano, a beautifully maintained instrument that used to belong to a Paris salon. The choice of repertoire was drawn from the same period as the piano, the potpourri-style programme combining solo piano pieces, short duo works, and substantial piano trios, helping create an intimate salon-like atmosphere.

The all Saint-Saëns second half began with two of his piano transcriptions of Bach’s unaccompanied solo violin movements, lovingly played by Kawaguchi with an appropriate dose of Romantic sentiment yet keeping to the Baroque style phrasing and articulation. A leading Japanese fortepiano based in Amsterdam and Tokyo, he evidently has a deep affinity for 19th-century repertoire. Also, in these solo pieces, we could enjoy the distinctive timbres in the different registers of the Érard – from the bell-like clarity of the high register to the rich overtones of the bass. After the obligatory Swan (surely Saint-Saëns’ most popular salon piece) was played with grace and simplicity by Niikura on her gut-strung cello, the trio gave a sparkling performance of his youthful and colourful First Piano Trio. I found that the piano’s nimble and feathery passagework in the first and third movements and the rawness of the rustic drone-like section were particularly effective on period instruments. The finale had classical poise.

Naruhiko Kawaguchi and Hitomi Niikura
© Suntory Hall

The Saint-Saëns section was preceded by works of his musical descendants: Fauré, who was his pupil and friend, and Ravel, who in turn was a student of Fauré. Indeed, one could detect Fauré’s harmonic influences in Ravel’s posthumously published Violin Sonata in A minor, a student work and his earliest known chamber work. Harada and Kawaguchi’s delicate approach brought out a dreamy atmosphere which made potent use of chromatic sonority, fluctuating rhythms and flageolet effects on the violin.

Fauré’s D minor piano trio, a late work composed in 1923 and the latest work on the programme, requires more than three brilliant soloists, which they undoubtedly are. Although each performed with plenty of enthusiasm and fluency, at first they didn’t quite gel. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause – maybe balance issues, or maybe that I wasn’t used to hearing Fauré on period instruments – with less pedal and vibrato, the sonority was clear but rather dry. Still, by the vigorous Allegro finale, in which the distinctive thematic and rhythmic motifs shift continually over the non-stop piano passagework, their intensity level rose, playing with brilliance and momentum.