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Ignaz PLEYEL (1757 – 1831)
String Quartets: in A major, Op. 2 No. 1 [17:19]; in C major, Op. 2 No. 2 [17:52]; in G minor, Op. 2 No. 3 [20:30]
Ensō Quartet

rec. Holy Martyrs Church, Bradford, Ontario, Canada, 31 Jan–4 Feb 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557496 [55:40]

Ignaz Pleyel, who was one year Mozart’s junior, was important as composer, as teacher, as publisher and as founder of the famous piano factory in Paris. His compositions are largely forgotten today, but a couple of discs with symphonies, released some years ago by Naxos and Chandos showed that the neglect was undeserved. They are well-crafted compositions and both melodically and structurally attractive. That also goes for the three string quartets on this new disc, which constitute the first half of his Op. 2 – the remainder due for release at a later date. Since he studied with Haydn it was maybe unavoidable that he should also turn to the medium of string quartet. This set, published in 1784, is dedicated to Haydn. Papa Haydn should have liked them but there is no record of his opinion. Mozart, on the other hand, lavished praise on them, or maybe the set Op. 1 which was published the same year. He wrote to his father:

You will find them worth the trouble. They are very well written and most pleasing to listen to. You will also see at once who was his master. Well, it will be a lucky day for music if later on Pleyel should be able to replace Haydn.

Well, that lucky day never appeared and when Haydn died he had already settled in Paris and was largely busy with other things than composing. Listening to this well engineered and well played disc it is easy to endorse Mozart’s opinion. They are undoubtedly Haydnesque in so far as there is a richness of melodic material and imaginative use of it. They are un-Haydnesque in one important respect – all three are in three movements; Haydn almost invariably employed four.

The first quartet, in A major, has a lively and elegant Allegro as its first movement, played with élan by the young musicians. The Andante grazioso is quite melancholy and the final Menuetto, is not all sunshine. It is dance music and Pleyel doesn’t forget that, but in the main it is rather sombre, which Haydn’s menuettos could also be. Yes, Haydn would certainly have liked it, but I think he might have taken his young pupil to task, saying: "Well done, Ignaz, but you can’t let it end there. You need a fourth movement." And I think I agree with Haydn; a more decisive end wouldn’t have come amiss. Still this very likeable music, and maybe even more so the second quartet in C major. There is a youthful freshness in the first movement that makes it easy to understand Mozart’s enthusiasm. The second movement is an Adagio cantabile with a kind of gently rocking melody that goes direct to the heart – and is beautifully played. The finale is like a promenade in the sunshine in Grinzing, now and then running a bit and then walking proudly again. If there are some clouds shading the sun in the first two movements, here it shines uninhibited.

The third quartet is in G minor, the key that brought out some of Mozart’s most heartfelt music, and it seems that Pleyel also finds an outlet for his personal feelings in this key. If this isn’t exactly early romanticism it is at least Sturm-und-Drang. The Adagio first movement is remarkable music that I think Mozart also would have been proud to have written – and most of his famous G minor compositions were much later works. The Allegro assai, whirling by swiftly and lightly, has a serious undertone even here and ends quite dramatically, tempting the listener to believe that this is the finale. The "real" finale, marked Grazioso, is more melancholy than joyous, even though both elements are present.

All through these three quartets one hears a composer who refuses to follow a standard formula; the inventiveness is high and one can just wonder what made these works go out of fashion. In his lifetime he was regarded as one of the foremost composers, maybe even the foremost; perhaps his time will come again. Fifty years ago Vivaldi was all but unknown to the general music-lovers.

The Ensō Quartet “is quickly becoming one of America’s leading young ensembles” I read in the booklet. From what I hear on this disc, which is their recording premiere, it’s no wonder. This is constantly fresh and flexible playing, conveying a splendid rhythmic feeling and fine unanimous string tone. Recorded in Canada by Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver they are presented in the best possible light and are to be congratulated for a spectacular start to what I hope will be a long recording career. Naxos should not wait too long before releasing the sequel.

Lovers of Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartet music, and indeed lovers of string quartet music in general, should not miss the opportunity to hear this fascinating disc.

Göran Forsling



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