This is the fourth volume in the Naxos series of Ries's complete
Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas. Volume
1 was reviewed recently on this site. Volume 5 is in fact
already available, although only as a download from the Naxos
website - listed for physical release in May 2011.
Stylistically, Ries's piano music sits somewhere between that
of Hummel, Beethoven and Schubert. In a way, his early death
in 1838 marked the end of an era: these four great contributors
to the late-Classical/early-Romantic piano sonata had all died
within eleven years of each other. Sadly for posterity, not
one of them had survived even into their sixties.
Of the four, Ries's name is probably least known - more often
than not relegated to a historical footnote as piano pupil,
friend, 'agent' and biographer of Beethoven. He is certainly
the least recorded by a long chalk. Yet he is by no means a
minor talent, at least as far as piano composition is concerned
- he wrote prolifically for his instrument to great acclaim
in his time, both by the public and his contemporaries. Nor
indeed when it came to piano playing, for which he soon established
himself as one of the leading performers in Europe - all the
more remarkable an achievement in that he had lost an eye to
a childhood illness. Indeed, by the time he came to write the
A flat Sonata, he had already earned enough money from
concert-giving to retire before the age of forty!
Despite its low opus number, Ries was already in his mid-twenties
when he wrote the Sonata in D, and it is far from an
immature work. It is the fifth of his fourteen solo sonatas,
and beside the immediately apparent tributes to Beethoven, there
are clear resonances of Haydn, Mozart and Clementi.
Overall, the sonata is sparkling and memorable; a substantial
thirty minutes in length, yet time flies by. The second movement
provides an unusual example in Ries's piano music of prolonged
counterpoint and canon, whereas the third is a set of variations
on a jaunty theme, a musical form that pervades his entire corpus.
The work is mercurially performed by Kagan.
After eleven years in London, where Ries not only married an
Englishwoman, but consolidated both his international renown
and his bank account, he returned in 1824 to his homeland in
north-western Germany. There he spent the rest of his life in
various local musical activities and in composition.
When he wrote the A flat Sonata in 1826, three years
had passed since his last work in this genre, and it would be
a further six before he composed what would be his final sonata.
These other two are available on volume 5, and together with
the A flat they represent a mature, Romantic phase in Ries's
sonatas. Written for a now extended keyboard, the op. 141 has
an altogether grander, more emotional feel about it - looking
forward to the Romantic pianism of Chopin, the Schumanns, Mendelssohn
and even Brahms. Ironically, it is slightly shorter than the
D major work, but melody and drama combine over and over to
produce an expressive, lyrical, occasionally virtuosic and frequently
beautiful whole, which Kagan plays with typical insight and
Susan Kagan is one of the great authorities on Ries's music
- though musicological interest in Ries has to date been as
puzzlingly low-key as the musical - and some of her knowledge
she shares in a short essay on both the composer and the two
sonatas in the booklet, albeit in Naxos's standard minuscule
font-size. Furthermore, Kagan has now - almost - recorded all
the Ries piano sonatas for Naxos. There are actually three more,
for piano four hands, which the label will, I hope, not omit
from this long-overdue tribute to a worthy composer.
The works are well-recorded, though the microphones may be a
trifle too close for some. The only real pity is that Naxos
did not use some of the empty twenty minutes of this rather
short disc to give listeners a little more of Ries's highly
original piano music - one of his 49 sets of variations or 42