Ignaz PLEYEL (1757-1831)
Symphony in B major, Benton 125 [26:37]
Symphony in G major, Benton 130 [28:34]
Flute Concerto in C major, Benton 126 [23:52]
Patrick Gallois (flute and conductor)
Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväsyklä
rec. Suolahti Hall, Jyväsyklä, 18-22 January 2010
NAXOS 8.572550 [79:15]
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
The music is fascinating in its own right.