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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1838)
Flute Quartets, Op.145
Flute Quartet in C major, Op.145, No.1 [17:37]
Flute Quartet in E minor, Op.145, No.2 [19:22]
Flute Quartet in A major, Op.145, No.3 (cadenza by JH Littlefield) [19:34]
John Herrick Littlefield (flute); Aaron Boyd (violin); Ah Ling Neu (viola); Yari Bond (cello)
rec. Sacred Heart Chapel of the Dominican Convent, Sparkhill, New York, 17-18 June 2006.  DDD.
Booklet with notes in English and German.
NAXOS 8.570330 [56:33]
Experience Classicsonline

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 his Piano 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 present 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 his name?

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, see Patrick 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 estate. 

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.

Brian Wilson

see also Review by Carla Rees


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