This admirable series from Naxos continues to give us recordings of classical symphonies, a context for the great achievements of Haydn and Mozart. This time it is Ignace Pleyel, Austrian-born but remembered more for what he later did in Paris, as instrument maker and publisher (he invented the miniature score), than for his music. Which is a pity, because it’s very good. Pleyel was a Haydn pupil and learnt his lessons well, on this evidence. He was criticised then, and still is now, as derivative; but although he uses various of Haydn’s devices, the musical personality that comes through is to my mind quite individual.
The earliest of the symphonies, B121 of 1778, is a substantial piece, nearly half-an-hour long, with a solemn and dramatic slow introduction and a first movement of splendid energy and drive, in triple metre, with lots of noise from the trumpets and drums, and interesting thematic treatment and modulations in the development. The spacious finale is another big and energetic piece. There is a lot to enjoy in the other symphonies, too, both of them from 1786 and noticeably more classical in tone. Try, for example, the vivacious opening movement of the C major work, or its Adagio, an eloquent piece with hints of darkness, or the finale with its busy, oddly twisty theme; or in the F minor work the urgent first movement, with its persistent figures and its fiery development, or the expressive Andante, where the accompanying textures are so tellingly managed. Note, too, the ways Pleyel teases the ear, prolonging phrases, moving in unexpected directions, and so on.
Well, it isn’t Haydn, but there’s room for others, and Pleyel is well worth a hearing. These modern-instrument performances are well judged and have plenty of vitality and sensitively chosen tempos, and the Bratislava group play with skill. There is an excellent, informative note by the New Zealand scholar, Allan Badley.'