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Ignaz PLEYEL (1757-1831)
String Quartets, op.2, nos. 1-3

String Quartet in A major, op 2 No.1 [17:19]
(1. Allegro [8:49]; 2. Andante grazioso [5:19]; 3. Menuetto [3:11])
String Quartet in C major, op.2 No.3 [17:52]
(4. Allegro moderato [7:27]; 5. Adagio cantabile [4:57]; 6. Finale: Allegro [5:27])
String Quartet in G minor, op.2 No.3 [20:30]
(7. Adagio [6:51]; 8. Allegro assai [7:25]; 9. Grazioso [6:14])
Ensõ Quartet
rec. Holy Martyrs Church, Bradford, Ontario, Canada, 31 January-4 February 2004
NAXOS 8.557496 [55:40]

These quartets by Ignaz Pleyel lie in that uncertain but fascinating hinterland somewhere between Haydn and Beethoven. Pleyel was a pupil of Haydn and unsurprisingly the older - and far greater - composer’s influence can be felt all the way through. On the other hand, their harmonic language takes them towards the world of Beethoven, though Pleyel’s imagination was in no way comparable to that of LvB.

These are however attractive enough pieces, even if very superficial. And they receive extremely persuasive performances at the hands of the wonderful Ensõ Quartet, who give the music every chance to establish its individuality. Each piece contains only three movements – a sonata-like structure – and the players make every effort to characterise the movements and their different sections as sharply as possible. The playing is totally assured technically, and ensemble is spotless. Perhaps the senza vibrato is overused – all of the quiet endings are done this way – but I won’t quibble too much, because the Ensõs have that invaluable quality of making you listen.

Quartets 1 and 2 have the expected ‘quick-slow-quick’ format; this may partly explain why no.3, which begins with an expressive Adagio, is easily the most interesting of the three works. The minor key provides more intensity and harmonic richness, and the slow opening throws the nervous Allegro assai that follows into appropriate relief. Whereas the first two quartets are almost wholly dominated by the first violin, this one has the benefit of sharing the musical interest more equally between the four members of the group - Richard Belcher, the Ensõs cellist, clearly relishing his bustling part in the Allegro assai. After the rather splendid first two movements, I found the final Grazioso (actually a Minuet and Trio) slightly disappointing, with its formulaic alternation of major and minor.

This music may not be ‘deep’ or even especially original. It is, however, interesting, attractive and beautifully crafted, and we have to remember that the composer was only in his mid to late twenties when he composed these quartets, still emerging from his apprenticeship as a quartet composer. I look forward to hearing the remaining three works in this Op.2 group (hopefully to be issued on Naxos by the same players) in order to experience for myself the composer’s creative development, hinted at in Allan Badley’s notes. The recording is excellent, combining sufficient intimacy with the lively ambience of the Canadian church where they were recorded; indeed, some may find the acoustic a little too lively – but not me!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Goran Forsling



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