Ignaz PLEYEL (1757-1831)
Paris Quartets Volume 1 (Concert Rarities from the Pleyel Museum Volume 8)
String Quartet in C, B.365 (1803) [25:09]
String Quartet in B flat, B.366 (1803) [17:06]
String Quartet in F minor, B.367 (1803) [21:04]
Janáček Quartet (Miloš Vacek (violin); Vítězslav Zavadilík (violin); Jan Řezníček (viola); Břetislav Vybíral (cello))
rec. Marmorsaal, Prämonstratenserstift, Geras, Austria, 8 May 2011. DDD
ARS PRODUKTION ARS 38818 [63:26]  

Although a fair bit of Austrian - and latterly French - composer Ignaz Pleyel's music is now available on CD, there is a long way to go before all the String Quartets are recorded. In 1977 Rita Benton's thematic catalogue of Pleyel's works was published, listing an incredible 74 extant String Quartets, plus another eight in which the composer has cannily recycled some of his originals by adding new movements. Benson catalogued these with the numbers 301 through to 370, with several insertions given a letter A or B: 325A-330A, 348A, 350A, 367A, 367B, 369A and 369B. There are also a further six that can double up as Flute Quartets (B.381-386). The Austria-based International Ignaz Pleyel Society gives the Quartets total as 70 (B.301-370), although this is due to the fact that they have not counted the individual items in their own table, which in fact tallies with the Benson catalogue.
As with Pleyel's 48 Symphonies, a number of this order makes his a significant contribution to the genre, all the more so considering the fact that he wrote nearly all of them in a very fertile decade from 1782-92. The three Quartets in this recording are rare later essays, dedicated to Boccherini, made when Pleyel had turned his hand to the business of music publishing and settled in Paris.
Pleyel did not blaze any musical trails, nor indeed hesitate to chop and change movements to create 'new' works for publishers. His music was extremely popular in his lifetime above all because it was always very elegantly crafted, melodious and imaginative, with an abundance of memorable tunes enhanced by surprising harmonic colourations and rhythmic deviations. Pleyel's deep musical intelligence was undoubtedly heightened by his exposure to Europe's finest minds through his publishing house, which produced among other things a complete edition of his teacher Haydn's own Quartets. He takes the unequivocal mellifluousness of these works beyond mere crowd-pleasing functionality into the realms of sophisticated artistry. No admirer of Haydn's late String Quartets can fail to be pleased by this disc, although Pleyel's voice is distinctive and his style decidedly more French than Austrian.
Sound quality is very good, although with a couple of riders. First, there are occasional 'noises off' - not much of a distraction, but still there when they ought not to be. Nothing much can be done outside of a studio setting about the intrusion of traffic noise, but a few minutes into the Quartet in B flat there is an audible join that follows a series of taps - as if something more serious was edited out. Fortunately there was a brief rest in the music where the join came, so no real harm is done. However, in the final movement there is another episode of what sounds like someone faffing about with the recording equipment. Again, the disturbance is subtle, such that it is only likely to be noticed through headphones. Elsewhere, some reverb has been added, recording volume is set to very high and the first violin has been given too much prominence, slightly unbalancing the recording and making the player’s breathing unnecessarily audible.
If the Janáček Quartet were distracted by technical shenanigans, they keep it well hidden, apart perhaps from an occasional tendency to be hesitant. The four current members bring an enormous amount of experience to their recitals. They naturally specialise in core Germanic-Slavic repertoire, from the mid-18th to mid-20th century. Pleyel's Quartets need and deserve such a champion. Nevertheless, they do not seem at their most convincing at this end of the repertoire - like Haydn, Pleyel requires a little less earnestness than Janáček or Beethoven, and these performances, though first-rate in many respects, come across as just a little too formal.
The booklet notes are detailed, informative and excellently translated, although on one occasion mathematically insecure: a quartet formed as stated in 1947 has, by 2012, gone more than the claimed "fifty years since its founding". For some reason the Quartet in C, like the one in B flat a first recording, appears in the inside track-list thus: "Streichquartett [...] für Violine Principal, Klavier und Orchester." Elsewhere in the booklet there is also a handy note on the Ignaz Pleyel Society, a scattering of small photos, and details of previous volumes in this series.
Those that find their appetite for Pleyel whetted by this disc can turn to the Luigi Tomasini Quartet, who recorded op.11 1-3 on Hungaroton (HCD 32593, 2009); or to the American Ensō Quartet, who recorded B.307-312 across two releases for Naxos half a dozen years ago (review, review); and to two volumes of the so-called 'Prussian' Quartets recorded by the Pleyel Quartet Köln for CPO (777 315-2, 777 551-2). As far as the Janáček Quartet are concerned, they have already been back to record a second volume of the Paris Quartets for ARS (38820). In this regard, it is also worth noting that all previous entries in the 'Konzert-Raritäten aus dem Pleyel-Museum' series are available, featuring chamber and orchestral music by Pleyel, and even an opera (see 38811 to 38820).
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No admirer of Haydn's late String Quartets can fail to be pleased by this disc.