PLEYEL: String Quartets, Op. 2, Nos. 4-6 (Enso Quartet) (Naxos: 8.557497)
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Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831)
String Quartets, Op. 2 Nos. 4-6
The string quartets of Ignaz Pleyel occupy a centralplace in his prolific musical output. Pleyel's interest inthe medium is unsurprising given that he studied withJoseph Haydn for several years in the 1770s. What ismore surprising in a composer routinely dismissed asderivative and largely content to ape the style of histeacher is that Haydn's influence on his approach toquartet composition was rather less marked than onemight expect. Pleyel, clearly, was not convinced thatHaydn had all the answers and this doubt manifesteditself very early in his career.
In 1776 Pleyel completed his studies with Haydnand enjoyed a great personal triumph with thesuccessful staging of his marionette opera Die FeeUrg?¿le at the National Theater in Vienna. Anappointment as Kapellmeister to Count Erdody soonfollowed and for a time at least Pleyel seemed set topursue a similar professional path to Haydn. Themusical resources at his disposal were excellent andErdody himself was an exceptionally generous andcultivated patron. Nonetheless, much to his surprise,Pleyel requested extended leave of absence as early as1778 on the grounds that he needed to undertake furtherstudies to perfect his art. After prolonged discussionPleyel was granted leave and headed off to Italy wherehe spent much of the next few years travellingextensively, composing and experiencing Italianmusical life at first hand. Pleyel's Italian experiencesexerted a powerful influence on his evolution as acomposer. Like Mozart he possessed an uncanny abilityto assimilate stylistic influences and his profoundunderstanding of the nuances of the Italian style isnowhere more evident than in his opera Ifigenia inAulide composed in 1785 for the Teatro San Carlo inNaples. While one might reasonably expect to see suchinfluences in the realm of opera - for opera sodominated Italian musical life that to ignore its stylesand conventions would be to court disaster - Pleyel'sfascination with Italian music ran far deeper and it leftindelible traces in many of his instrumental worksincluding the string quartets.
We do not know when Pleyel first began tocompose string quartets although at least one earlybiographical sketch claims that he took severalmanuscript quartets with him to Italy. These works,which remain unidentified, may have been composedduring his years with Haydn or perhaps during his timeas Kapellmeister to Count Erdody. Whichever the case,Pleyel's earliest quartets were composed duringHaydn's so-called 'Quartettenpause', the nearlydecade-long interval between the composition of theepochal Op.20 Quartets and the brilliant quartets ofOp.33. With the completion of the Op.20 Quartets in1772 Haydn recognized that he had reached a majorartistic impasse. He had immeasurably expanded theemotional and intellectual horizons of the medium buthe had done so using means that he felt offered limitedpotential for further development. His response was tostop composing quartets until he had found a wayforward. Mozart, who had quickly written a set of sixquartets in imitation of Op.20, famously followed suit.
Pleyel, then, found himself in an unusual position. Hehad studied with the most famous composer of quartetsin Europe and yet was aware, as probably no one elsewas, that Haydn himself was unconvinced that his finestworks to date represented the best way to composestring quartets. With no answer forthcoming fromHaydn (Mozart would not have figured in his thinkingat this time) Pleyel turned to other models, notablyHaydn's earlier quartets, and in particular the Op.17Quartets of 1771, the quartets of his first teacher,Johann Baptist Wanhal, and, less obviously, to theworks of Italian composers whose clarity, elegance andlyricism he found captivating. Above all, Pleyel lookedto himself to find a solution, one in which his ownmusical voice would be heard over that of his teacher.
That he succeeded in large measure was recognized byMozart who, on seeing a set of recently publishedquartets [possibly the Op.1 set which was issued in1784], commended them enthusiastically to his father:You will find them worth the trouble. They are verywell written and most pleasing to listen to. You will alsosee at once who was his master. Well, it will be a luckyday for music if later on Pleyel should be able toreplace Haydn.
Pleyel composed the majority of his 57 authenticstring quartets in less than a decade. Unsurprisingly,there is a high degree of stylistic consistency within theseries and a number of important characteristics can beseen. The most obvious of these is Pleyel's preferencefor a three-movement rather than a four- movementcycle. This represents a radical departure from Haydn'smodel although three-movement quartets - andsymphonies for that matter - were extremely commonduring the late eighteenth century. Another interestingtendency in Pleyel's quartets is the reduction in thelength of the development section in sonata-formmovements in the later quartets. This contraction andthe growing emphasis on lyricism rather than thematicmanipulation represents a conscious rejection ofHaydn's approach to large-scale musical constructionbut one that is also inextricably linked to Pleyel'sfondness for concertante writing with its demand forsimpler musical textures and his cultivation of anintensely lyrical style.
The six String Quartets Op.2 were first published in1784 by the Viennese publisher Graeffer with adedication to Haydn. Haydn's opinion of the works isnot known but he must have been impressed by theirrich variety of thematic material and the flexibility andimagination with which Pleyel handled his musicalstructures. The first movement of the fifth quartet, forexample, contains a false reprise that forces substantialrecomposition in the recapitulation and there are at leasttwo examples of mirror recapitulations where the maintheme resurfaces only during the closing stages of themovement (the first and second movements of the firstquartet). Significantly, all but one of the works are inthree movements: the exception is the fourth quartet inE flat which adds a brief 29-bar Minuet between its slowmovement and finale. The slow movements are directedto be played con sordini, a favourite device of Pleyeland one he would have encountered on numerousoccasions in the music of his teacher. They are veryItalianate in flavour with their beautiful first-violincantilena and one can imagine Luigi Tomasini, theleader of Haydn's orchestra and the man whom heconsidered the best interpreter of his quartets, playingthese movements with relish. The most interestingstructurally of the slow movements is that of the sixthquartet. The first fifty odd bars of the movement suggestvariation style and structure as (as do the sectionalheadings in the source), but the main theme is not reallyvaried at all despite its obvious thematic promise.
Instead, the movement unfolds as a series of couplets,each focusing on a different instrument, only the first ofwhich stays in the tonic. With the reprise of the theme inbetween (minus repeats) and the gradually diminishingsurface rhythms typical of the variation style, themovement becomes an extended variation-cum-rondostructure, a derivative perhaps of Haydn's characteristicalternating or double variation form. Pleyel's harmoniclanguage is also striking at times with some lovelychromatic shadings and also a number of unexpectedmodulations including the juxtaposition of third-relatedkeys which was to become one of the most importanthallmarks of Haydn's late style.
The ghostly presence of Haydn can be heardthroughout all these splendid works but there arepassages too that seem to look forward to the quartets ofBeethoven. They are a remarkable achievement for ayoung composer and it is one of the cruel quirks of fatethat works of such vitality