Now in its 13th year, the annual Corbridge Chamber Music Festival fills St Andrew’s Church, Corbridge to its high-vaulted ceiling, with glorious music from the Gould Piano Trio (who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year) and their varied guests. This year’s line-up included musicians from Norway and New Zealand, and the familiar faces of regulars such as Robert Plane, principal clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and joint founder of the festival, performing a wide range of traditional trio repertoire and some more adventurous modern works in a classical music festival which has a real family feeling.

Gould Piano Trio
Gould Piano Trio

Tonight’s concert was a Gallic treat with two relatively little-known works by Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. The Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor was composed in 1892, as Saint-Saëns was losing popularity, and he uses this traditional instrumental genre to experiment with a more progressive musical language, while still bowing his head to the classicism of past ages, especially in the longer outer movements. It is a substantial work, consisting of five fascinating and varied movements; a friend of Saint-Saëns, Charles Lecocq, once said of the fourth movement that it was a ‘delicious intruder’ but ‘so pleasing that it cannot be dismissed’, and I would have said the same about any of the others.

This trio is an elusive one; no sooner does Saint-Saëns get his teeth into some passionately virtuosic material than he whisks us away with a playful countersubject, diffusing the emotional tension with an unexpected key change or new light-hearted melodic motif. When the music does release the full force of its romantic spirit, the experience of the Gould Trio really came to the fore as, moving as one entity with an almost telepathic connection, long flowing lines of melodic material were passed seamlessly from player to player. The virtuosic piano part was particularly impressive from pianist Benjamin Frith – Saint-Saëns takes no prisoners as the relentless accompanimental passages are juxtaposed with shimmering semiquavers in the upper octaves and dramatic melodic material. The grace and dexterity with which the Gould Trio played the lilting second movement and the almost childlike simplicity displayed in the fourth were beautiful moments in a first half which showed the eclecticism of Saint-Saëns’ compositional style as well as the profound emotional power of his music.

Saint-Saëns and Fauré were famously teacher and pupil, but their friendship extended far beyond that and they were avid supporters of each other’s work – the influence of his mentor is quite clear in the majority of Fauré’s early compositions. The Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor is perhaps Fauré’s best early work, composed in 1879, and arguably an enormous improvement over his first violin sonata of two years earlier, which was a huge success, marking a turning point in Fauré’s compositional career.

For the second half, we were joined by Arvid Engegård (violin), Juliet Jopling (viola) and Rosie Bliss (cello) with the tireless Frith taking to the piano once more. Although a less popular genre than the string quartet or piano trio, the piano quartet sees Fauré use the augmented forces to great effect, with the piano and strings often acting as independent entities, providing some much-needed variation in the dense texture and lush romantic harmony. For a genre that is perhaps freer than the conventional string quartet, Fauré sticks rigidly to the structural rules – arguably to the detriment of the musical expression. The influence of Saint-Saëns is clear, though, in the juxtaposition of the rich German style and the natural, gentle, French side of Fauré’s nature, perhaps more commonly associated with his numerous songs.

The stirring opening of the first movement was a striking start to the half and I felt that the emotional journey was expressed beautifully throughout. The dreamy middle section to the Allegro molto moderato and the lively Scherzo was wonderful, but unfortunately this piece didn’t grab me as the first half had. The whole evening, however, was a complete indulgence and the large and dedicated following that the Corbridge Chamber Music Festival attracts is truly well deserved, if the standard of playing seen here tonight was anything to go by.