Pleyel: String Quartets, op. 41–42, Nos. 1–2

Authentic Quartet
Hungaroton HCD 32783

Several months ago I gave high praise to a CD of Pleyel’s piano trios, part of an extensive series issued under the auspices of the Internationale Ignaz Pleyel Gesellschaft (IPG) (anyone interested will find it in the September 2016 listing). This new disc is not from the same stable, rather presenting four works listed on the disc as string quartets.

As many readers will know, the usual listing for Pleyel’s works is under their Ben number (after their cataloguer Rita Benton). I was puzzled by the lack of any such identification on the present CD, leading me to further investigation. That opened up something of a can of worms, for it transpires that these ‘quartets’ are not in fact quartets at all, but rather keyboard trios whose correct listing should read Ben 443 in A (op. 41/1, Ben 444 in F (op. 41/2), Ben 446 in G (op. 42/1), and Ben 447 in B flat (op. 42/2), almost certainly composed around 1792, the year Pleyel came to London at the invitation of the Professional Concerts. The adaptation was probably made not by Pleyel himself, but the publisher of the quartets, Johann Andre, who issued them in 1793/4. Astonishingly, you will learn nothing of this from Hungaroton’s booklet notes and I’m indebted for an extensive anonymous Amazon review and its attendant comment for this information, apparently based on Benton’s Thematic Catalogue. There seems no reason to doubt its accuracy.

A notable feature of the ‘quartets’ is that apart from an opening allegro in standard Classical sonata form, the remaining movements (one in Ben 443 & Ben 446, two in the others) all feature Scottish airs. The original trios are indeed included in books designated as such, being the result of a commission from the Edinburgh publisher George Thompson for Pleyel to produce a series of introductions and arrangements of Scottish melodies for keyboard trio (there appear to be six books in all), a provenance seemingly unknown to either the assiduous Amazon reviewer or the rather less than assiduous Hungaroton note-writer. It will be recalled that both Haydn and Beethoven received similar commissions from Thompson.

Having settled the background, what of the music itself? Well, it is characterised by the high level of compositional skill I noted in the earlier CD. Opening allegros are pleasing, well-constructed movements with considerable melodic and contrapuntal interest and some effective modulation in development sections. Although the first violin is given occasional passages of bravura writing, there are no real difficulties for the performers, the works doubtless originally having been intended for the burgeoning dilettante market. The Scottish airs are mostly lively, good-humoured music, although the wistful Andante of the Ben 444 – perhaps the most appealing movement of all – and the central Adagio espressivo of the B-flat quartet introduce a more pensive note. The performances on period instruments by the Hungarian-based Authentic Quartet are very capable, being well tuned and balanced. They manage to capture convincingly the wit and general spirit of conviviality that informs these highly agreeable works.

Brian Robins

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