The case of Ignaz Pleyel is a curious one. In the two last decades
of the eighteenth century he was regarded as a major composer,
rated by his contemporaries above Mozart and his own teacher
Haydn. Then around 1800 he gave up composing to concentrate
on his own growing and lucrative business as a piano manufacturer,
and by the time of his death some thirty years later he was
almost totally forgotten. What on earth had happened?
Well, Beethoven had happened. His out-and-out movement towards
romanticism made Pleyel’s experiments in the same direction
seem tentative and out of step with the times. After one had
heard the Eroica or the Fifth nothing less
would do. Even composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn who started
out from a similar background wholeheartedly embraced the romantic
aesthetic, which gave them a staying power that Pleyel lacked.
He simply sounded old-fashioned by comparison. And yet there
also appears to have been a personal failure of nerve.
We can hear this actually taking place in the three works on
this disc. The dating of Pleyel’s symphonies is problematic
and not readily ascertainable, but there does seem to be a sense
of progress taking place from the work in B to that in G. The
first is redolent of Haydn in his middle Sturm und Drang
period, and could easily be mistaken for a (rather good) Haydn
symphony from that period. The symphony in G recalls the style
of Gluck’s Dance of the Furies and looks forward from
there, even anticipating Beethoven in a couple of places. There
are tantalising momentary hints which recall to the mind passages
from the Pastoral Symphony, Egmont and even
briefly the Eroica – all works some fifteen years or
more in the future. But after these symphonies had
been published Pleyel settled in Strasbourg, and in due course
was arraigned before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris during
the Reign of Terror accused of royalist sympathies, and only
managed to save his life by agreeing to write music for the
ceremonies of the French Republic. This appears to have psychologically
unnerved him, not altogether surprisingly; unlike Beethoven,
who could indulge his republican and revolutionary sympathies
in safely distant Vienna, Pleyel had experienced the unpleasant
spectacle of the French Revolution devouring its own children
at first hand.
You can hear the effects of this experience in the Flute
Concerto which concludes this disc. The opening tutti
is a magnificently proto-romantic beast, crammed full of innovations
and daring modulations which in many ways anticipate Beethoven’s
Violin Concerto which was to follow less than a decade
later. As soon as the soloist enters, Pleyel retreats into a
conventionally decorative style, with a shocking change of mood
which is almost insulting. When the orchestral returns it makes
an attempt to re-establish the earlier sense of unease, and
for a moment it even appears that the flute soloist will be
drawn into this world; but no, soon polite manners reassert
themselves, and remain thereafter unchallenged to the end. Then
shortly afterwards Pleyel gave up composing altogether.
All this is to judge in the light of historical retrospect –
but how else are we to view this music, knowing what we now
know about the way in which music was to develop so soon? It
is regrettable that Beecham never performed Pleyel’s symphonies,
given his sympathy for early Beethoven or Schubert; and it would
be interesting to hear this music given a no-holds-barred treatment
by a modern romantic orchestra. Would Pleyel’s revolutionary
innovations still hold up under these circumstances? It is most
unlikely that such an experiment would justify itself financially
either in performance or on record – but how about a broadcast?
Be that as it may, the performances here – like all the other
recordings of Pleyel currently available – give us a view of
the composer as a creature of the eighteenth century, with a
smallish orchestra and classical good manners. The orchestra
here plays on modern instruments, which seems right and gives
plenty of weight to the string sound whilst not over-balancing
the wind. They play well for their flautist conductor; but unfortunately
Gallois is surprisingly less satisfactory as a soloist. He is
fine in the fast music of the outer movements of the concerto,
but in the slow middle movement his sustained tone is a little
tentative and even at one point slightly suspect in intonation.
Perhaps the effort of conducting while playing causes these
occasional moments of instability?
The sound is absolutely fine, and the balances are exactly calculated.
The music is fascinating in its own right, if only as an example
of might-have-been rather than achievement gained. There are
a number of recordings of various Pleyel symphonies available,
but neither of those here appear to have been recorded elsewhere.
Paul Corfield Godfrey