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.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk