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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1838)
Clarinet Trio, Op.28 (1810) [23:53]
Clarinet Sonata, Op.29 (1809) [24:59]
Clarinet Sonata, Op.169 (1814) [20:23]
Dieter Klöcker (clarinet); Thomas Duis (piano); Armin Fromm (cello)
rec. 17-21 November 2003, 10-11 May 2004, Tonstudio Teije van Geest, Heidelberg/Sandhausen.
CPO 777 0362 [69:18]

 

“He ... wrote much chamber work and six symphonies. All these works, however, are dead. Beethoven once said of his compositions, ‘he imitates me too much.’ He caught the style and the phrases, but he could not catch the immortality of his master’s work. One work of his will live – the admirable Biographical Notices of Ludwig van Beethoven, which he published in conjunction with Dr. Wegeler (Coblenz, 1838)”. So writes A.W. Thayer in the 1940 edition of Grove.

“Beethoven is reported to have made the most damaging remark about him (‘he imitates me too much’), which, though probably apocryphal, is only partly fair”. So writes Cecil Hill in the New Grove of 1980.

Hill – somewhat grudgingly and partially – acquits Ries of the charge of being merely a slavishly derivative imitator of Beethoven or, in the terms in which Thayer puts it, of being little more than a plagiarist. The more I hear of the music of Ries, the more I feel that it deserves better even than Hill’s half-hearted acceptance. Yes, of course, his work registers the influence of Beethoven but that is hardly surprising, given that he had studied and worked with him. Indeed only a genius as towering as Beethoven himself could have been left unmarked by such an experience. Beethoven’s own statement – if indeed he ever made of it - needn’t be taken as some kind of gospel truth or even as an objective judgement, for all kinds of reasons to do with his temperament and his attitude towards other musicians, the state of his relationship with Ries at the time of the remark, etc. Ries is not a profound original - like most composers. He writes in one or more of the prevailing idioms of his day - like most composers. The relevant question is how well he writes in that idiom.

The answer is that, very often, he writes strikingly well. These three chamber works for clarinet, for example, are substantial, searching pieces, often subtle in their use of classical forms, endowed with attractive melodies and emotionally expressive. The earliest work, the trio, uses the instrumental combination of clarinet, piano and cello, which Beethoven had used in his Op. 11 trio of 1798, rather than the combination of clarinet, piano and viola which Mozart employed in the so-called Kegelstatt Trio K.498 of 1786. But where Beethoven’s Op. 11 is in three movements (allegro con brio – adagio – allegretto), Ries’s Op. 28 is in four (allegro – scherzo, allegro vivace – adagio – rondo, allegro ma non troppo). There is a loose affinity in the way both composers create surprising harmonic changes in their respective first movements but, to my ears, there is actually very little real indebtedness to Beethoven in the larger handling of Ries’s fine trio. The rhythmic inventiveness of the second movement is striking, the adagio - which also serves as an introduction to the last movement - has a distinctive ornamented melody played first on piano and then on cello, before some lyrical writing for the clarinet. The final movement has something of the rural dance about it. A rewarding piece which deserves to be taken on its own terms and judged – surely pretty favourably? – on its own terms.

The Clarinet Sonata, Op. 29 comes early in the history of compositions for clarinet and piano. There is  pleasing formal wit in the three movements of this sonata, harmonically quite sophisticated in the opening movement, with delightfully contrasted moods in the adagio. The latter includes one passage where the clarinet part lies below that of the piano which allows for two improvised cadenzas on the clarinet. The finale contains some demanding and striking writing for the piano.

Ries’s second sonata for clarinet was written some five years later, probably during the composer’s honeymoon in the Rhineland; he had married in London in July 1814. Fittingly, the sonata breathes an air of happiness and contentment, its often extended melodies marked by their elegance and charm. The adagio is a beautiful dialogue between the instruments, the piano - as at almost every point in these sonatas - being far more than a mere accompanist. The final movement returns to material from its two predecessors, handling them in quite complex and technically demanding ways, before the sonata ends in an affirmation of untroubled joy.

All three of these pieces deserve wider circulation than they have yet had. Pace Dr. Thayer, these works are most definitely alive. All three are persuasively performed on this CD, which can be recommended unreservedly. Klöcker, Fromm and Duis are all highly accomplished; the interplay between them is a delight. This is a CD to which I shall return many times.

Glyn Pursglove

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