Ferdinand Ries is hardly a household name. He is
conspicuous by his absence from the 2008 editions of the Gramophone
Guide and the Penguin Guide. That said, he seems
to be emerging from neglect. CPO have recorded his symphonies
and Naxos already have several recordings of his music, including
his Clarinet Trio, Op.28 (coupled with Beethoven’s Clarinet
Trio on 8.553389) and the Piano Concerto, Op.55 with
other works (8.557844). A colleague made their recording of
Concertos Op.123 and Op.151
Recording of the Month (8.557638 : “An hour of sheer
delight here.”) Another beat me to the draw in reviewing this
CD, generally in favourable terms.
A whole generation of musicians lived under the
shadow of the triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, especially
of Beethoven, and Ries was inevitably one of those. Brahms
took years to shake off the influence of Beethoven – even when
he finally published his First Symphony, it was unkindly dubbed
‘Beethoven’s tenth’ in some quarters: as Brahms admitted, any
ass could see that. What chance then was there for Ries, a friend
and pupil of the great master and of Beethoven’s own teacher
Albrechtsberger and, in any case, hardly a musical giant, despite
These Flute Quartets are, perhaps, less
under the spell of the Great Man than Ries’s other works. Not
only are they attractive and well worth hearing, though hardly
very memorable, they are in a form which Beethoven never employed.
As far as I am aware the Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola,
Op. 25, is the nearest he came. Mozart had however done so, despite
his expressed aversion to the flute. For a recommendable version
of the Mozart Flute Quartets and the Beethoven Serenade,
Waller’s review of the Avie version (Lisa Beznosiuk, etc,
on AV2108) : “Delectable – if you want to forget the cares of
the 21st century for an hour or so, this may be the
answer.” Neither the music nor the performances on this Naxos
disc are quite up to that standard, though they come pretty close.
If Mozart was Ries’s model, these works go beyond
their original in scope and sometimes in variety and imagination,
though they lack the last degree of sheer charm of the Mozart
Flute Quartets. Ries was more cosmopolitan than Beethoven,
touring extensively, including in England. Of course, he need
never have set foot outside Vienna to have absorbed a variety
of influences, such as the Spanish element in the finale of
the First Quartet, marked Allegro all’espagnola, but
no doubt it helped.
These quartets were the work of Ries’s retirement
when he had absorbed a variety of musical experiences. Having
made his fortune, he was able to enjoy prosperity on his Rhineland
The variety within that First Quartet, with
echoes of Mozart and Beethoven in the earlier movements and
the very different Spanish flavour in the finale, is not quite
matched in the other two, but the three works as a whole add
up to a worthwhile and varied concert, as if they were intended
to be played together.
The Second Quartet provides a contrast with
both the first and third – a darker work in the dominant minor
(e minor) of the A major Third Quartet, itself perhaps
the least derivative of the three, though with a hint of Schubert
at times, especially in the Allegro finale. The opening
Allegro moderato of the Second Quartet seems at
times reminiscent of Beethoven – the middle- rather than the
late-period quartets – by which I don’t mean to imply that it
is derivative: the lighter touches which soften the mood are
different from any Beethoven model. Nor do I mean to imply
that the music is too self-contented: Ries’s comfortable retirement
expresses itself in roundedness rather than complacency. These
works are far from being the musical equivalent of Jane Austen
– not my favourite author, you may gather – who prided herself
on the narrow limits of her writing.
The performances are generally good, certainly
good enough to make the music enjoyable, and responding well
to the varied moods within and between the quartets. I was
not all that less bothered by the minor technical flaws here
and there. Littlefield’s playing might well have won over Mozart
to the instrument, even if he was really as averse as he claimed
to be, and his string colleagues’ playing is not far behind.
The recording is also good: rounded and neither
too forward nor too backward, with plenty of separation of the
instruments. Some have felt that the cello could have been
more prominent; whilst I would have agreed after listening to
the CD on one set-up, with the lighter-toned Monitor Audio BR5
speakers, my other set-up, with Arcam Solo + Monitor Silver
speakers, brought out the cello to my satisfaction. Conversely,
this Arcam/Monitor Silver setup can over-emphasise the bass
on some recordings, especially on reissues of older ADD material.
These quartets are performed in editions by J.H.
Littlefield himself, the flautist on the recording, who has
also written the short but informative notes in the booklet.
Littlefield admits that he has been unable to trace Charles
Aders, to whom the Quartets were dedicated, but the German translator,
Cris Posslac, has added a helpful footnote, identifying him
with the same amateur to whom Franz Danzi’s three Flute Quintets,
Op.50, were dedicated, a note which Naxos might well have included
with the English version.
The cover is the usual Naxos model of good taste
– more tasteful than many full-price issues – with an attractive
contemporary print of a Rhineland scene, such as Ries might
perhaps have seen from in his retirement in that area.
by Carla Rees