Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trios: in C,
Trio 1790 (period instruments)
CPO 777544 (71:38)
Born in Lower Austria in 1757, one year after Mozart, Ignaz Pleyel outlived Beethoven by four years, dying in 1831. He thus spanned the entire Classical period. His authenticated works, as cataloged by the late Rita Benton, noted Pleyel scholar and former head of the music library at the University of Iowa, number more than 700, exceeding in count Mozart’s symphonies and very nearly besting in volume Haydn’s string quartets. So popular was Pleyel in his lifetime that his fame spread all the way to Massachusetts, where a Pleyel Society was established in Nantucket. His credentials were sterling: After early study, likely with Johann Baptist Vanhal, Pleyel came under the wing of Haydn, who considered him a more promising—or, shall we say, more malleable?—student than Beethoven.
In 1783, a position in Strasbourg, then under the French flag, beckoned Vanhal to France, where he worked with Franz Xaver Richter at the Strasbourg Cathedral. He was happy there, succeeding Richter as
maître de chapelle
, marrying a French woman, Françoise-Gabrielle Lefebvre, and changing his first name to the French Ignace. Unfortunately, just about the time his Frenchification was complete, the Revolution broke out, and public concerts as well as musical performances in churches were banned. Undeterred, Pleyel followed in Haydn’s footsteps to London, where he made good money leading the series of Professional Concerts organized by Wilhelm Cramer. This pitted Pleyel against his former teacher, Haydn, who was in London at the same time leading a similar series of concerts organized by Peter Salomon. Still, the two men—Haydn and Pleyel—remained friends in spite of the rivalry. On his return to France, Pleyel ran afoul of the new regime’s functionaries, several times brought up on charges of being a Royalist collaborator. No ideologue, the ever utilitarian Pleyel saved himself from imprisonment or worse by composing works in praise of the new Republic.
After the Reign of Terror (1793–94) subsided and the guillotine stopped falling, Pleyel moved to Paris and set himself up in the music publishing business. In this endeavor, too, he was wildly successful, printing Haydn’s complete string quartets and countless scores by almost all of the leading composers of the day, including Beethoven. After that, a man of lesser energy and ambition would have been satisfied to hang it up, but not Pleyel. In 1807, at the age of 50, he ventured into the business of piano manufacturing, producing some of the best instruments of the day. Chopin played Pleyel pianos and performed his first and last concert in the Salle Pleyel. In 1815, Pleyel’s son, Camille, joined the business and continued to run the company after his father’s death. By 1834, the firm had grown to employ 250 workers.
Reading this story of Pleyel’s life, one would have the impression that the man was a reincarnation of King Midas; everything he touched turned to gold. But like the legendary Midas, whose food and drink also hardened into the precious but inedible metal, Pleyel’s music also became ossified and indigestible to future generations. The “why” becomes clear in listening to these trios, and that is
a comment on the performances.
Pleyel may only have been in his mid- to late-30s when he turned his attention to the piano trio medium in the 1790s, but Mozart was already dead and had left behind five masterpieces in the genre. Moreover, the last of Haydn’s piano trios and the first three of Beethoven’s were being written at exactly the same time as Pleyel’s, and the latter’s could only suffer in comparison. According to the booklet note, the great music scholar of the time, Charles Burney, observed that “Pleyel’s fancy, thought at first so fertile, is not so inexhaustible, but that he frequently repeats himself, and does not sufficiently disdain the mixture of common passages with his own elegant ideas.” Burney was too kind. If Boccherini, as it’s been said, was Haydn’s wife, Pleyel was Haydn’s handmaiden.
Hearing the first movement of the C-Major Trio, it’s hard not to laugh out loud; it resembles the soundtrack to a 1950s animated cartoon. The chattering runs of Pleyel’s score rendered by the clattering sounds of Harold Hoeren’s unidentified fortepiano (maybe it’s an original Pleyel?) enhance the comic image to perfection. More seriously, Benton, in her Pleyel catalog, identifies these works not as piano trios, but as trio sonatas for violin, cello, and keyboard. I think the distinction is significant because it suggests that these pieces are throwbacks to a slightly earlier phase of the Classical period, reminiscent perhaps of the fusing of
styles one hears in works by C. P. E. Bach, though offhand, I can’t think of anything I’ve heard by Carl Philipp that sounds quite this frivolous and superficial.
We shouldn’t be too surprised, I suppose, at Pleyel’s popularity when we recall that musically unsophisticated audiences at the time found Mozart’s later works difficult. As entertainment music, Pleyel’s piano trios are not without redeeming value. The Trio 1790 makes a specialty of performing mid 18th- to early 19th-century works by C. P. E. and J. C. Bach, Koželuch, Dussek, and others; the ensemble has just concluded its complete Haydn piano trios project. My reference to Harold Hoeren’s clattering fortepiano was not a swipe at the playing on this disc, which is excellent throughout. Pleyel’s piano trios may be little more than plant food, but the Trio 1790 is guaranteed to make your ficus flourish. Recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins