Benjamin Godard: Complete Piano Trios

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GODARD Piano Trios: in g, op. 32; in F, op. 72. Jocelyn: Berceuse • Parnassus Tr • MDG GOLD 3031615 (59:47) Listening to these two...

GODARD Piano Trios: in g, op. 32; in F, op. 72. Jocelyn: Berceuse Parnassus Tr MDG GOLD 3031615 (59:47)

Listening to these two piano trios by Benjamin Godard (1849–95), one would never guess that he trained as a violinist under Henri Vieuxtemps at the Paris Conservatory. I say this because both works are launched by a storm of piano passagework so turbulent as to leave Mendelssohn hanging on for dear life at the dock. From this one might understandably surmise that Godard was one of the great keyboard virtuosos of the 19th century, though such was not the case. This is music that is strangely beautiful and beautifully strange, which makes it difficult to describe, so perhaps some background will help.

The Jewish Godard was born in Paris at a time when opera was all the rage and when piano and violin giants—Alkan, Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, etc.—filled Parisian salons and concert halls to overflowing. Godard, like his slightly earlier French Jewish compatriots Meyerbeer and Halévy, sought fame and fortune in the opera house, writing at least eight operas, only one of which, Jocelyn , seems to have had any staying power. Unlike Meyerbeer and Halévy, however, Godard did not place all or most of his eggs in one basket. He was highly prolific in a number of genres, composing a surprisingly large number of works considering his relatively short life of 46 years. Among his output are concertos for violin and piano—a Naxos recording of the violin concertos with Chloë Hanslip was reviewed by Ian Lace in Fanfare 31:6—ballets, overtures, three symphonies, three string quartets, sonatas for violin and cello, the two piano trios on this disc, plus numerous songs and solo piano pieces. Yet out of more than 150 works, Godard is today remembered mainly for the Berceuse from his opera Jocelyn , added as an encore at the end of the current CD. It might also be mentioned that Godard was openly hostile to Wagner and outspokenly critical of the German composer’s anti-Semitism.

It’s too easy, perhaps intellectually lazy even, to cite Mendelssohn and Schumann as the only influences in Godard’s music and to just leave it at that, for there’s much more going on here. Take, for example, the rolling, roiling turbulence that opens the 1884 Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major. Franck’s A-Major Violin Sonata was still two years in the offing, but it’s uncanny how closely Godard’s writing presages the beginning of the second movement in Franck’s sonata. There is also a degree and a type of chromaticism in this score that would not have occurred to Mendelssohn or Schumann and that is more common to the French school; I’m thinking particularly of Fauré, who, after all, was born five years before Godard.

Like most works of its genre and period, a second theme, quieter and more lyrical in nature, is introduced. But here is where I believe Godard is at his weakest. The desire and the impulse are there, the gesture sincere, but the ability to craft a memorable melody eludes him, and what emerges in its place is a kind of soft-shoe, salon-style music that bides its time until the next storm surge washes away the cucumber and cress sandwiches. Listen, for example, beginning at 4:20 in the first movement, and then to the violin’s entrance 10 seconds later.

The Piano Trio No.1 in G Minor dates from 1880 and was, at one time, quite popular. Again, the piece opens in a state of tumult, with restless, agitated passagework in the piano. Here, the Mendelssohn influence is a bit more pronounced. Listen, for example, beginning at 1:54 in the first movement, to the second theme that unfolds like a Mendelssohnian song without words. The Leipzig composer is also conjured up in Godard’s Tempo di Menuetto, which is actually a moderately paced scherzo. But these good-natured elves sound more like oafs, hiccupping and clumsily tripping over each other as if they’ve had a bit too much to drink.

I might question the Parnassus Trio’s violinist, Yamel Yu, and cellist, Michael Gross, for overdoing it a bit on the portamentos in the Andante quasi Adagio and elsewhere. The potted plant is leafy enough; fertilizer is not needed. As note author Martin Bernklau observes, “The way Godard’s lyrical talent sometimes borders on sentimentality in the slow movements probably engendered a favorable response in the salons.”

The concluding Allegro vivace provides further evidence of French influences in Godard’s music that tend to dilute the prima facie Mendelssohn/Schumann argument, for here we have a clear example of the cyclic techniques favored by Berlioz, Franck, Saint-Saëns, and Liszt. The trio’s last movement begins with the same material that began the first movement. Godard then transforms it harmonically and rhythmically in true cyclic fashion.

As salon pieces go, the Berceuse from Jocelyn , in Bernklau’s words, “is certainly not kitsch despite its popularity. It is a little gem whose tender melodic beauty has survived more than a century.”

Most record labels are proud to trumpet first-ever recordings. That MDG doesn’t do so in this case suggests to me that previous recordings of Godard’s piano trios may have once existed. Currently, however, I find no other listings. As hinted at above, I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the Parnassus Trio’s somewhat raffish readings; I could imagine this music being played more tastefully and with greater refinement by a French ensemble that better understood the musical aesthetic of Godard’s time and place. But we’re not likely to get another recording of these works anytime soon, and technically, the Parnassus Trio is an exceptionally fine ensemble whose many excellent performances on MDG—trios by Lalo, Philipp Scharwenka, and Rheinberger—I’ve been enjoying for a number of years. Recording, as always with this label, is outstanding. In the absence of perhaps more idiomatic readings, this is definitely recommended, especially to those who enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of 19th-century chamber music.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Although Benjamin Godard's prolific output is represented today primarily by the Berceuse from his opera Jocelyn, his two piano trios are anything but salon fluff. Each four-movement work fully taps the medium's textural potential, with plenty of melodic interest, well-sustained development, and witty touches, such as the deft alterations from triple to duple time in the G minor Trio Minuetto and the hushed exchanges between the piano's broken chords and the pizzicato strings in the F major Trio's Allegro vivace finale (letter L in my copy of the Durand score).

The Trio Parnassus pretty much matches the high standards it set in its excellent Schumann recordings for MDG. The musicians are especially responsive to the Adagio movements' long, unfolding narratives, and generally take Godard's explicit dynamic directives on faith. Ideally I'd prefer faster, more effervescent and sharply characterized finales than what the Trio Parnassus delivers, but the ensemble still makes a strong case for reviving these works. In the absence of an earlier, out-of-print edition on Koch Schwann featuring the Trio Ma Non Troppo, the Trio Parnassus has no current catalog competition here. Recommended.

--Jed Distler,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 01, 2010

  • UPC: 760623161525

  • Catalog Number: 3031615-2

  • Label: MDG

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Benjamin Godard

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Parnassus Trio

  • Performer: Yu


  1. Jocelyn: Berceuse

    Composer: Benjamin Godard

    Ensemble: Parnassus Trio

  2. Piano Trio No. 1 in G minor, Op. 32

    Composer: Benjamin Godard

    Ensemble: Parnassus Trio

  3. Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 72

    Composer: Benjamin Godard

    Ensemble: Parnassus Trio