Chamber music, in the forms in which we usually think of it, which is to say the string quartet and the piano trio, did not take hold among French composers until about a century after Haydn began his great cycles. The well-known French quartets came late in the 19th century and early in the 20th from such figures as Franck, Faure, Ravel, Debussy and Roussel.

Faure, in fact, was an active chamber-music composer all his life; he left us not only a fine trio, but also a pair each of the rarer species of piano quartets and piano quintets. The long-lived and prolific Saint-Saens composed a dozen chamber works, and Edouard Lalo, the composer of the popular Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra, turned out at least a half-dozen; nearly all of these are unknown to most of us, and that consideration alone makes the new Turnabout disc of piano trios by these two composers one of the most intriguing surprises of the season.

On TVC 37002 Saint -Saen's Trio No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, and Lalo's Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 7, are played by the Caecilian Trio, which ensemble makes a fine showing in its disc debut. Its members are pianist Annie Petit, who has been heard in recordings of Saint-Saens's music for two pianists with Marylene Dosse on Vox and Turnabout; Sally O'Reilly, a New York-based violinist, and Beverly Lauridsen, a Piatigorsky pupil who now is principal cellist of the Brooklyn Philharmonia. From the sound of it (and the sound itself is exceptionally well balanced and warm), these women have worked together for some time, and must have real affection for both of these little-known works.

The Lalo, composed several years before that composer's aforementioned "big hit," is especially attractive. Since all French musicians of his time venerated Schumann, and none more than Lalo himself, it is hardly surprising that the Trio exhibits Schumannesque qualities. Schubert, too, is called to mind, especially in the lovely slow movement, which shows more than a passing resemblance to the corresponding movement of Schubert's symphony in the same key as this Trio (No. 4 in C minor, the "Tragic"). All in all, this is an eminently lovable work; I have found myself going back to it several times with no thinning-out of my initial enthusiasm.

The ingratiating appeal of the Lalo Trio is not quite matched by the Saint-Saens, but the latter is even more finely crafted. It is a similarly early item in its composer's catalogue, and also brings certain reminders of Schubert; the sparkling finale is more or less in the spirit of the "Trout" Quintet, though without the actual thematic resemblance noted in the Lalo.

Whether Lalo's and/or Saint-Saens's other trios (Lalo wrote two more, Saint-Saens one more) and string quartets (one from Lalo, two from Saint-Saens) are equally worthy of recorded exposure, I can't say, for I have neither heard them nor even heard about them from anyone who knows them. The present pair of trios, though, is a happy dual discovery (neither work, apparently, has been available on records in this country till now), and the Caecilian Trio is perhaps the happiest discovery of all on this splendid disc.

Collectors interested in more of Lalo's music may be referred to the recent reissue of Ernest Ansermet's elegant recording of material from the ballet Namouna, together with the Norwegian Rhapsody and other piedes, on London STS-15293, and to Jean-Pierre Wallez's performances of Lalo's two "other" violin concertos (The Concerto in F, Op. 20, and Concerto russe, Op. 29) on Peters PLE 005. There is also a handy three-disc Vox Box in which Ruggiero Ricci plays all the concerted works for violin (there are six of them), Laszlo Varga plays the Cello Concerto, and Marylene Dosse the Piano Concerto QSVBX-5150). Dosse's recording of the Piano Concerto is also issued on a single LP, paired with her performance of the even more obscure Piano Concerto of Massenet (Candide QCE-31102).