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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1837)
String Quartets Vol. 1
String Quartet in C WoO37 (1827) [25:03]
String Quartet in E flat WoO10 (1805) [27:19]
Schuppanzigh Quartett
rec. Deutchlandfunk, Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Köln, January, February 2004. DDD
CPO 777 014-2 [52:30]

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To have lived in the shadow of Beethoven must have been the greatest cross a composer could bear. Few have been more shaded by him than his pupil Ferdinand Ries. Whereas other composers of the time, for example Hummel, went their own sweet way, Ries undoubtedly absorbed some Beethoven but this disc provides evidence that it was a slow process. In the notes accompanying this release, Bert Hagels suggests – and very plausibly on the aural evidence – that the E flat quartet harks back to Haydn and the C major to Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets. The latter was written some twenty years after its models, in the year of Beethoven’s death. To be fair, it would be unrealistic to have expected an influence from Beethoven’s late quartets when the whole world took so much time to understand and appreciate them.

Ries wrote twenty-six string quartets of which only eleven were published; the early ones date from around 1798 and the last two from 1834. It is not clear to me which of these, if any, have been recorded before. A search of a large database of classical CDs found about ten other discs devoted to this composer, none of which included string quartets. These are not billed as première recordings but as volume 1 of a series. No promises are made as to its ultimate completeness, rather the biography of the Schuppanzigh Quartett suggests that recording of “a representative selection” is in progress.

Formally, these are fairly conventional works based on sonata form, both in four movements and each with a minuet. This is placed second in the earlier work and third in the C major quartet. By way of an aside, only two of Beethoven’s Op. 18 set, which were written at the very end of the 18th century, included minuets. In some ways the earlier work is more interesting, and its last two movements are particularly pleasing: a deeply felt adagio followed by a rondo marked Allegro moderato which begins with a very memorable tune. The Schuppanzigh Quartett is more moderato than allegro here but, in the end, this approach seems well-justified.

In the C major work there is virtually a quote from Beethoven’s Op.59 No.1 at the beginning of the opening movement. As in the earlier work, the music is tuneful and well-crafted, and does not outstay its welcome. Being reminiscent of Beethoven is surely an asset although I was not as bowled over by this music as I was by two of Ries’s piano concertos which have recently surfaced on Naxos. Overall, my view is that these quartets are worth hearing although CPO is probably right not to commit to the complete oeuvre. Certainly it makes sense to have them in the catalogue in preference to more Beethoven quartet recordings, unless the performances are very special indeed.

The playing of the Schuppanzigh Quartett here is consistently impressive. They are accorded an exemplary recording and the documentation is good. I have just one significant gripe – this is short measure at 52 minutes. Unless these works are Ries’s shortest two quartets, another could have been included and would have made this an even more attractive proposition. Nevertheless, with a mid-price tag, the disc is still reasonable value.

This is a valuable release of music by a composer who merits are yet under-recognised on disc. With such committed playing and fine sound it can be warmly recommended.

Patrick C Waller



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