Ferdinand RIES (1784 - 1838)
Piano Sonata in D, op.9 no.1 (1808) [30:06]
Piano Sonata in A flat, op.141 (1826) [28:35]
Susan Kagan (piano)
rec. 28 December 2008, Beethoven-Saal, Hanover. DDD
NAXOS 8.572299 [58:45]
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 ease.
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 rondos, perhaps!
Sparkling and memorable.