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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1838)
Piano Sonata in A, op.114 (c.1823) [13:23]
Piano Sonata in A flat, op.176 (1832) [26:28]
Piano Sonata in B minor, WoO 11 (1801 or ?1805) [22:04]
Susan Kagan (piano)
rec. 28-29 December 2008, Beethoven-Saal, Hanover. DDD
NAXOS 8.572300 [62:04]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the fifth volume in Naxos's series of the complete piano sonatas and sonatinas of German composer Ferdinand Ries. It has been available as a download from the Naxos website for a few months already. Volume 4, which was recorded by Susan Kagan at the same time, was enthusiastically reviewed here. With the physical release of this volume, only the three sonatas for piano four hands remain for Kagan and Naxos to add the capstone to this splendid edition - and these are, rumour has it, in the pipeline. Ries's discography on Naxos has in any case been growing steadily. There are two CDs of chamber works with flute, and four of presumably five volumes of Ries's complete works for piano with orchestra - vol.3 was reviewed here, and vol.4 can be previewed here. Elsewhere, a decade ago Howard Griffiths and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra began recording Ries's eight symphonies on four discs on CPO (999547-2, 999716-2, 999836-2 and 999904-2 – see review). Griffiths crops up on CPO again very recently with a CD of Ries's concert overtures - see review.

Stylistically, Ries's piano music sits somewhere between that of Hummel, Beethoven and Schubert. Between them these four made an immense contribution to the late-Classical/early-Romantic piano sonata, despite the fact that not one of them lived even to see his 60th birthday. 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. 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, of 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.

Kagan relates in her notes the mystery regarding the date of the early Sonata in B minor (WoO 11). The inscription on the manuscript reads "Sonate pour le Piano Forte composé par Ferdinand Ries à Munich 1805", but Ries was in Munich in 1801, and Vienna in 1805. She writes: "The 1801 date appears to be likelier, based on various pieces of evidence, such as the limited range of the piano in the sonata, and the extensive use of an Alberti bass accompaniment. In general, there is a clear jump in compositional technique from WoO 11 to the two sonatas of Op. 1, published in 1806."

This was Ries's only unpublished piano sonata, and therefore gives an early glimpse of the treasures that lay ahead. The opening movement not only has a probably unique tempo marking, Largo molto et (sic) appassionato, but is rhythmically striking from the very start. Moreover, for the first minute and a half it sounds like a distorted echo of the opening of Beethoven's famous so-called "Moonlight" Sonata (op.27/2). After that it picks up the pace, but the moonlit atmosphere continues, and the odd rhythmic push 'n' pull returns. The slow movement moves tonally back into major, but the mood remains rather saturnine, at least until the final bars. The third movement sounds even more strikingly like Beethoven - this time the final movement of his "Pathétique" sonata (op.13). Beethoven's opp.13 and 27/2 had both been recently published, and around this time Ries was Beethoven's copyist, so these likenesses are more than coincidence - Beethoven must have generously taken them as the pupil's homage they undoubtedly were. Ries was still in his teens when he wrote the B minor Sonata, and though clearly an 'immature' work, Ries's lyricism and ear for rhythm are already in evidence, even if some of his creativity at this stage originated in his great teacher.

By contrast, the Sonata in A, op.114 is the first of Ries's three mature works in the genre, spaced across a decade. Written around 1823, this is a short, reflective, yet still optimistic work, from the almost childlike simplicity of the opening bars of the theme-and-variations Andantino cantabile first movement. In fact, this is as close as the work gets to a slow movement, as the second and third are both in rondo form: a lively scherzo followed by a cheery finale which is almost like a summary of what has gone before. As might be expected from the date, the Sonata is reminiscent of a Beethoven-Schubert hybrid, but Ries now has a style and sound of his own.

After this sonata, written at the end of an eleven-year stay in London, Ries returned with an English wife, international renown and bulging bank account to his homeland in north-western Germany, where he spent the rest of his life in various local musical activities and composition. But he was in Rome when he wrote his final Sonata in 1832, the A flat, op.176, one of his last works of any kind.

The Sonata is in four movements, something Ries had not tried for nearly 25 years, since his early op.9 no.2 work. On the other hand, he chose the same key as for his penultimate Sonata, op.141 (see vol. 4), where he had used it for the first time. In any case, this work showcases Ries the Romantic, writing for a by this time extended keyboard. Whether or not it represents a summation of Ries's aspirations in this genre is a moot point; after all, Ries deceased before reaching old age - his father Franz died a week short of his 91st birthday, outliving him by eight years, and his brother Joseph, only six years younger, actually died on his 91st birthday, surviving Ferdinand by an incredible 44 years. Nevertheless, the Sonata is an expressive, wistful, but utterly elegant work, full of Ries's trademark relaxed lyricism and melodic creativity. It looks forward to Chopin, Mendelssohn and, in the exuberantly classical, and highly memorable, rondo finale, even to Brahms. Yet there are still fond adieux to Beethoven and particularly Schubert - most obviously in the delightful German dance in the third movement.

Although it can easily be rectified in a CD player, the order of works on the disc seems misjudged - a chronological arrangement would have been more satisfying, most of all because the final Allegro of op.176 is Susan Kagan's finest possible tribute to Ries's piano sonatas. On the other hand, Kagan's performance is simply marvellous throughout - she plays with sophistication, expression and humour that Ries himself would certainly have applauded. Kagan is also one of the leading published authorities on Ries's music, and provides the informative liner notes. The recording and general technical quality are once again first-rate.

Ries wrote a lot of music, and his numerous songs, 26 string quartets, 28 violin sonatas and a heap of other piano music really do urgently need to be made available to the world and posterity in the form of recordings. With luck, Naxos and CPO may be considering some of those projects right now.


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