Ignace Joseph PLEYEL (1757-1831)

String Quartet in C major, Op. 41 No. 1 [13:44]
String Quartet in F major, Op. 41 No. 2 [15:32] String Quartet in G major, Op. 42 No. 1 [14:21]
String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 42 No. 2 [17:40]
The Authentic Quartet (Zsolt Kalló (violin), Balázs Bozzai (violin), Gábor Rác (viola), Csilla Vályi (cello) (period instruments))
rec. Pécel Catholic Church, Hungary, 24-25 August 2015
First recordings
HUNGAROTON HCD32783 [62:04]

I usually review in batch order; however, since this disc arrived last week it has not been off my player. I had only put it on while I prepared a meal but I have not listened to anything else.

I thought that I knew the music of Ignace Joseph Pleyel, the Austrian composer who was contemporaneous with both Mozart and Beethoven. He outlived both. These days he is probably best remembered as a music publisher and for his part in the development and manufacture of the piano. When young he studied with both Johann Baptist Vanhal and then Joseph Haydn, whose influence can be felt in his music. He moved to Strasbourg, his years there being the most prolific as a composer. There he became a maître de chapelle at the cathedral where he worked alongside Franz Xaver Richter, who also can be seen to have influenced his musical development. Pleyel moved to Paris with his family in 1795 and it was there that he published over 4000 musical works, including the complete string quartets of his musical hero, Haydn. He later opened his piano factory there.

I have a number of CDs of Pleyel’s music, including several discs of his other string quartets. They're all charming examples of the late classical and early romantic styles, so I was surprised on hearing this disc. Pleyel does away with the Haydn model of the four movement string quartet, with both sets, Opp. 41 and 42, containing a quartet in two movements and a quartet in three. That was not the surprising part: it was the fact that I was hearing Scottish music coming out of the speakers. It was only after looking at the booklet that I saw that each quartet contained Scottish airs or rondos, and in the case of the Quartet Op. 41 No. 2, one of each.

All the quartets here were composed in France after Pleyel’s concert tour of England in 1792. It seems likely that during this tour he came across the Scottish folk music that he uses in these quartets. Celtic music and especially Scottish folk songs were very popular across Europe. Both Haydn and Beethoven made many excellent arrangements of the songs, a tradition which was carried on for many years, with Bruch arranging some fine examples. Here, Pleyel takes the tradition one step further and incorporates them into these four string quartets. The result is something quite wonderful, a hybrid between the middle European and Scottish folk styles. The music is light and airy, the folk elements only serving to increase the dance-like aspects of the quartets. There are clearly movements that are purely Scottish in character whilst in others Pleyel seems to be using the folk idiom to inform his own composition. Either way this is wonderful music — music to bring a smile.

The playing of the Authentic Quartet is excellent as always. I have a number of their CDs, and Pleyel must seem like a mainstream composer to them. They have a wonderful sense of ensemble and approach this music with great vitality. Those afeared of period instruments need not worry as they produce a big bold sound that complements this fine music, as does the recorded sound. All in all, this is a lovely disc, one which will appeal to all devotees of the art of the eighteenth century string quartet.

Stuart Sillitoe

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