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8.557844 - RIES, F.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 (Hinterhuber, Grodd) - No. 3 / Introduction and Polonaise / Variations on Swedish National Airs
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Concertos, Volume 2

 

As one of the greatest pianists in Europe of his time and a composer of exceptional ability, it is surprising that the name Ferdinand Ries is not better known today. Indeed, the neglect of most of his major works is even more inexplicable given his long association with Beethoven. In most other circumstances this would have prompted an exhaustive study of his music but in Ries's case this has not happened. One of the reasons for this may lie in his publication of an important book of reminiscences about Beethoven that has proved to be of such enduring interest that scholarship has concentrated on this rather than his music. Of Ries's own career comparatively little has been written. Over the years there have been sporadic performances and recordings of some of Ries's chamber works and, more recently, of his very impressive symphonies. The concertos, however, have until now remained curiously unexplored.

Ries published nine concertos, the first for violin (which survives only in a later arrangement for piano and violin) and the remaining eight works for the piano. The concertos were numbered sequentially in order of publication and, as a consequence, the numbers themselves are not only misleading since the sequence of piano concertos starts with Concerto No. 2, but the publication dates themselves bear little relation to the actual dates of composition. Ries's 'Third' Concerto – the Concerto in C sharp minor – is in fact his fifth since it was preceded by the Violin Concerto (No. 1), the C major Concerto (No. 6), the Concerto in E flat (No. 2) and the C minor Concerto (No. 4). Concerto No. 2 was published in 1812 with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph and may have been composed around the time Ries visited Vienna in 1808. Although its composition date is uncertain, the work undoubtedly precedes the Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 55.

Ries's extensive European tour which began in 1809 took him to Russia in 1811 where he remained until the dramatic events of 1812 persuaded him that it might be prudent to leave. His outward journey had been eventful enough. In a memoir published in the Harmonicon in 1824 he recalled that his journey to Russia 'was marked by that fatality which seems to have attended him whenever he came into the neighbourhood of belligerents, for the vessel in which he crossed from Sweden, was taken by the English, who detained their prisoners for eight days on a small rock.'

Our knowledge of Ries's activities in Russia is scant. We know that he met up with his old teacher Bernhard Romberg in St Petersburg and in his company travelled to Kiev, Riga, Revel and other towns in all of which he gave highly successful concerts. He was preparing to go to Moscow when, in the words of the Harmonicon memoir, 'his old friends, the French, again interfered'.

From letters written to his friend, the Stockholm publisher Ulric Emmanuel Mannerhjerta, it is evident that Ries was keen to become a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, an institution which had numbered Haydn among its honorary members. Under the terms of admission, applicants were required to submit a work for full orchestra for consideration by the directors of the Academy. Ries, who was made aware of this condition in September 1812 by Mannerhjerter, was disappointed that his concertos would not be deemed acceptable, a circumstance that suggests that he had no suitable work with him. With Russia in the grip of the French invasion and the prospect of concerts in Moscow gone, Ries may have advanced his plans to visit the Swedish capital and with them his immediate composition plans.

While he was in Russia Ries began work on a new piano concerto. The autograph score of the work, the Concerto in C sharp minor, is dated 'Petersburg 1812' but the incomplete state of the manuscript suggests that it was either written in extreme haste, possibly as the composer fled the country, or that its composition was interrupted by other projects. There are several possible contenders, among them the brilliant Swedish National Airs with Variations, Op. 52, which had its première on 14 March together with the new concerto, an overture and the Sorgmarsch and Finale. The Symphony in D, Op. 23, was performed at Ries's first concert in Stockholm on 4 March 1813 and secured his election as an honorary member of the Swedish Academy of Music.

The autograph deteriorates sharply in quality from early in the second movement where the notation of the solo part becomes more and more sketchy. The left hand is excluded much of the time and a good deal of the right hand part consists of note heads and stems without specified durations. As these passages often involve elaborate ornamentation, Ries's intentions are difficult to unravel. Towards the end of the Finale, the autograph breaks off without warning and the orchestral accompaniment only is written into the score in the hand of an unknown copyist. The physical appearance of the autograph suggests that Ries began composing the work in St Petersburg in 1812 – and perhaps even dated the head of the manuscript at this time – and had reached the early part of the second movement around the time that the dramatic events of 1812 forced him to rethink his plans. It is possible that he broke off work entirely at this point and did not return to the concerto until he reached Sweden in the early part of 1813. Given the brevity of his stay there (he remained in Sweden for six weeks) he had little time to complete the work and even less time at his disposal if he were engaged in the composition of other works for his concerts. Circumstances such as these might account for the unusually poor quality of the autograph score.

The C sharp minor Concerto is an impressive work. The shadow of Beethoven can be detected at times in Ries's bold handling of the orchestra and, of course, in its general musical structure, but the style of the solo writing is recognizably Ries's own. It is certainly virtuosic – there are numerous bravura passages in the outer movements and complex, florid decorations of the melodic lines in the central Larghetto – but more remarkable is the intensely lyrical quality of the writing, the rhythmic subtlety of the accompaniments and the manner in which Ries exploits the colours of the instrument. The work also contains moments of great simplicity. In the central solo section of the first movement, for example, the piano introduces an exquisite new theme in octaves which is accompanied by tremolo strings. The slow harmonic rhythm and the hesitant piano theme lend the section an eerie, timeless quality as if to allow one a moment's repose before the battle between the soloist and orchestra is rejoined. There is nothing in the Beethoven concertos quite like this and the first review of the work (which was printed in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung) emphasized the dissimilarity between Ries's concerto and Beethoven's C minor Concerto, Op. 37.

Nor is there a great deal of Beethoven to be heard in either the Swedish National Airs with Variations or the Introduction and Polonaise. Perhaps because his career as a public performer ended relatively early in his life, Beethoven did not cultivate these newer, fashionable genres although he did compose many sets of variations for piano solo. The 'Swedish' Variations takes the form of a powerful, rhapsodic introduction followed by a loose series of variations based on three traditional melodies; Waggavisa (a cradle song), Skansk Bond Dans (a Scanish peasant dance) and Quarndansen (the Miller's Dance). The melodies are contrasted in key, tempo and metre and their individual variations also include changes in metre and tempo. The multi-thematic basis of the variations enables Ries to create a fluid and dynamic musical structure which affords him opportunities for both brilliant technical display and extended periods of highly expressive writing for the soloist. The orchestra is used very skilfully, not only in the accompaniment of the solo instrument but more impressively in the tutti sections which link or divide the variations.

The Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 174, is a late work, composed in 1833 while Ries was visiting Rome. The autograph score, which is preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington, is headed: 'Rondo Polacca for the Pianoforte with accom. of the Full Orchestra Composed by Ferd: Ries Rom 1833'. Ries's use of English for the title is interesting given that it was nearly ten years since he had returned from England to live in Germany. It may indicate his intention to publish the work in London although in the event it was issued by Dunst in Frankfurt who also printed an arrangement for piano duet which has not survived. Unusually for Ries, no further editions of the work appeared, a sign perhaps that his popularity was beginning to wane.

The change of title was presumably sanctioned by the composer himself and it certainly reflects more accurately the structure of the work. The Introduction, although not overly long, contains the typically Riesian juxtaposition of rugged grandeur and delicate sensitivity. The link to the Rondo Polacca – the original title is retained for the main body of the work – is deftly handled and the gravity of the work's opening is immediately forgotten as the soloist launches into the sprightly rondo theme. While the work dates from Ries's last years it is not dissimilar stylistically to earlier works like the Swedish National Airs with Variations composed some twenty years earlier. Rather than seeing this as evidence of stylistic stagnation on Ries's part, one might argue more generously that it highlights the progressive qualities of his earlier compositions. Moreover, their strong formal and stylistic kinship reveal a composer comfortable with the voice he has created for himself.

Allan Badley

 


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