Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838)
Grand Sextet in C major for piano and string quintet, op. 100 (1817)
Introduction and a Russian Dance, op. 113/1 (1823)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op 143 (before 1826)
Sextet in G minor for piano, harp, winds and double bass, Op 142 (1814)
The Nash Ensemble
rec. 2021, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
HYPERION CDA68380 
Ferdinand Ries is forever connected to Beethoven, as student and more importantly as assistant, but I was surprised to read in the booklet notes that their association only lasted three years (1801-04). After leaving Beethoven and Vienna, Ries worked around Europe, most importantly in London for a decade, where he became highly regarded as pianist and composer. It was during this time that he gained a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London for his former teacher, from which would result the Ninth Symphony. For this, if nothing else, history is in his debt.
These four works, thought to be all written during his time in London, are characterised by virtuosic writing for the piano, and the Grand Sextet is essentially a chamber concerto for piano and five strings. Ries clearly learnt his lessons from Beethoven very well, to the point where he seems unable to break free of them. If you heard the outer movements of the Grand Sextet without any further information, you would assume they had to be by Beethoven, though not on his best form. The slow movement uses an Irish melody – The last rose of summer – and is less Beethovenian. The work doesn’t really have enough substance to fill the twenty-seven minutes, but is nevertheless entertaining.
The somewhat awkwardly-named Introduction and a Russian Dance, for cello and piano, is thought to have been aimed at the gifted amateur market, especially in the writing for the cello, which is a level down from that for the piano. That’s not to say that it is simplistic or banal, quite the contrary. The slow Introduction is quite lovely, and the Dance, based on a traditional Russian folk melody, is developed proficiently into a rondo. I don’t hear a strong LvB influence here.
However, in the Trio, that influence returns strongly. Can you get much more Beethoven than a C minor work that begins Allegro con brio? While the piano part remains prominent, it is more an equal conversation than the Grand Sextet. The first movement, which occupies half of the work’s twenty-one minutes, features a few too many runs up and down the keyboard, and they seem a little like padding in the absence of inspiration. The galumphing Finale is the best of the three movements, lots of energy, and dominated by nervous rhythms. The Trio has one other recording (CPO 7770532, coupled with a very early Trio), which I haven’t heard.
The G minor Sextet is the best of the four works, and deserves a place on the concert platform, but its unusual scoring would make building a programme around it an interesting challenge. Despite this apparently being the earliest of the four works, it seems furthest away from Beethoven. The original presentation of the work was as a duo for piano and harp with accompaniment (there is also a quintet version with violin, viola and cello). This gives the impression that the clarinet, bassoon and horn are subsidiary, but that isn’t the case. Nor does the piano dominate as it does in the other works. The three movements are fairly well balanced, across the twenty minutes, both in duration and inspiration. I enjoyed this greatly.
The Nash Ensemble is, of course, highly regarded, and for good reason: they play these works as though they were masterpieces. The production values are of the usual high standard that one expects from Hyperion.
Apparently Beethoven complained that Ries “imitates me too much”. From the evidence offered by the Grand Sextet and Trio, he did have a point. I think it is significant that the two best works here – the Russian Dance and the Harp Sextet – are where Ries manages to get himself out of Beethoven’s shadow.
Published: October 5, 2022