Review

International Record Review
October 2003

Pleyel String Concertos, Volume 1.

Cello Concertos – C, Ben101; C, Ben104; D, Ben105; C, Ben106; C, Ben108
Erdődy Chamber Orchestra/Péter Szabó (cello)

If in his later career Ignace Pleyel demonstrated he knew how to oil the wheels of commerce and of society, with his piano-manufacturing business and conquest of the Parisian haut monde, he seems to have demonstrated a comparable aptitude in his earlier composing years. To judge from these cello concertos, given their first recording here, he was already something of an old smoothie. Without playing the tired old game of condemning a composer for this commercial success (particularly common in the reception of this era, often deriving from a collective guilt at the perceived fate of Mozart), I found that much of this music failed to stay in the mind or heart. Every work contains its ‘features of interest’, but only one – the earliest, Ben101 (1782-84) – is consistently memorable.

This is all the stranger given Pleyel’s undoubted accomplishment as a composer – as hinted above, he knows all the moves – and, equally, the real excellence of the performances here. Balance is well judged, the orchestra is consistently alert to Péter Szabó’s direction and Szabó himself can do little wrong as a soloist. He is often guilty of the string player’s vice of rushing when confronted with quicker note values – and there are plenty of occasions when the cello breaks into brilliant passagework – but otherwise he is all eloquence. He also provides very fine cadenzas (especially that for the first movement of Ben108). Pleyel is surely at his most inventive in the rondo finales; all are cleverly and entertainingly worked. The slow movements, with one exception, are in an idyllic-amorous vein and so tend to be harder to distinguish. But it is the first movements that seem least inspired (with the exception of the impressive Ben106) – too much of the adventure is saved for their central sections.

However, Ben101 retains this modern listener’s interest throughout. The orchestration is more arresting, for a start, whereas in the subsequent works Pleyel seems to be moving towards the ‘Romantic’ practice of using the soloist to create a dominating stream of consciousness. There are, for instance, some nice touches of violas counterpointed against the solo cello. The Adagio, in the minor, is intensely elegiac, and wonderfully projected by the performers, but the outer movements, too, have many riveting moments.

This has clearly been a labour of love for the soloist, with all but one of the concertos being performed from editions he has made himself. Sustained listening is not helped by the fact that only one of the concertos is not in C major; and, as one often finds in the case of lesser-known composers, the insert notes hardly engage with the particulars of the music. The players, though, could hardly do more, and the highest musicianship should always be rewarded.

W. Dean Sutcliffe

Péter Szabó cellist, conductor, music editor
Péter Szabó's recordings are available on Amazon.com: