About this Recording
8.570440 - RIES, F.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 (Hinterhuber, Grodd) - No. 7 / Grand Variations on Rule Britannia / Introduction and Variations Brillantes
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Concertos, Volume 3

 

As one of the finest pianist-composers in Europe of his time, it is surprising that the name Ferdinand Ries is not better known today. The neglect of most of his major works is even more puzzling given his long association with Beethoven, first as his pupil, and later as a life-long friend and colleague. 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 although it is to be hoped that important initiatives such as the publication and recording of his complete works for piano and orchestra will serve to stimulate interest in this fascinating composer.

Unlike Beethoven, whose deafness drove him from the concert platform relatively early in his career, Ries remained one of Europe’s most celebrated virtuosi until well into the 1830s. His receptiveness to new musical trends and his ability to develop and exploit them was as fundamental to his success as an artist as it was to his close contemporary, Hummel. This quality of Ries is reflected in the formal diversity of his works for piano and orchestra: in addition to concertos, there are several sets of variations, two large-scale rondos and a polonaise. Beethoven, by comparison, restricted himself principally to the solo concerto, the genre Mozart had brought to the peak of perfection in the mid-1780s, although the Choral Fantasia, Op. 80, with its lengthy fantasia-like introduction for the piano and subsequent theme and variations structure, bears some similarity to the sets of variations later written by his pupil.

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 numbering of the first six works is 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. The explanation for this rather confusing state of affairs is probably straightforward. Ries composed piano concertos first and foremost for his own use. Like Mozart and Beethoven before him, he withheld works from publication while they were still largely unknown to his audiences. Whether he continued to perform the works is uncertain, but there seems little doubt that his decision to delay publication reflected his wish to prevent others from doing so. In the 1820s Ries published three of his earlier concertos: the Fourth Concerto, Op. 115 (1823), composed in Bonn in 1809; the Fifth Concerto, Op. 120 (1823), place and date of composition uncertain but possibly London, ca 1815–1816; and the Sixth Concerto, Op. 123 (1824), composed in Bonn in 1806. With the publication of these works and a seventh, to which we will return, the stage was set for the composition of Ries’s last two concertos and several smaller works for piano and orchestra.

Ries’s concertos inevitably invite direct comparison with those of his teacher. Beethoven’s influence is certainly there to be seen, not only in the overall scale and structure of the works but also in their rugged, powerful orchestration. But in many other respects, the works are dissimilar and intentionally so. Their musical organization is deft and the music itself perfectly coherent; there are numerous examples of clever motivic manipulation in the concertos, but it is also apparent at once that they are not thematically-driven works in the manner of Beethoven. They are melodically rich but not motivically dense and in this they bear a similar relation to Beethoven’s works as Pleyel’s do to those of Haydn. The solo writing is also very different and its pianism, like Hummel’s, looks forward to Chopin and Mendelssohn rather than back to Beethoven’s great Middle Period sonatas and concertos. While the large-scale structure of Ries’s concertos still conforms closely to that of the late-nineteenth-century concerto, their internal musical organization differs considerably, particularly in the matter of tonal architecture. Although Ries’s harmonic vocabulary is not fundamentally different from Mozart’s, the range of tonal relationships is greatly expanded and the old eighteenth-century tonic-dominant polarity is weakened. Another striking feature of Ries’s concertos is the proliferation of tempo markings within a single movement; when combined with carefully marked rallentandi and frequent cross-rhythms in the solo part, the movements demand an expressive flexibility in performance that is as foreign to Beethoven as to Mozart. The rhapsodic quality of Ries’s style is heightened further by the interpolation of cadenzas—some surprisingly extensive in scope—in the middle of movements rather than before the final tutti; cadenzas also serve on occasion to introduce movements rather than to function as a link between movements.

Many of these characteristics are encountered in Ries’s ‘Seventh’ Concerto, composed in London in 1823. Ries had been living in London since 1813 and had prospered there. He was very highly regarded as a pianist and composer and was also a fashionable teacher. Nonetheless, he found himself increasingly irritated by the directors of the Philharmonic Concerts and, being in a sound financial position by the early 1820s, decided to leave London and return to his native Rhineland. Before his departure he composed a brilliant new concerto which was published the following year with the title ‘Abschieds-Concert von England’ (Farewell Concerto from England). Whatever Ries’s sentiments or intentions may have been at the time he wrote the work, this title does not appear on the autograph score which is simply headed ‘Seventh Concerto for the Pianoforte with full Orchestra Composed by Ferd: Ries London 1823’. The Abschieds-Concert shows Ries working at the height of his creative powers. Alone among the concertos, it opens with a short but powerful slow introduction. A seemingly innocuous dotted figure in the horns quickly proves to be of critical thematic importance as the taut, muscular Allegro con moto unfolds. To those familiar with Ries’s concertos, the majestic opening ritornello comes as no great surprise, but once the piano enters, in A major with a new theme, the movement takes on its own distinctive quality. The solo writing is remarkably flexible and the unexpected twists and turns in the bravura writing, particularly in the long cadenza that lies at the heart of the first movement, might well have been in the mind of the Harmonicon reviewer who, in a tribute to Ries published in 1824, wrote:

Mr Ries is justly celebrated as one of the finest piano-performers of the present day. His hand is powerful, and his execution is certain,—often surprising. But his playing is most distinguished from that of all others by its romantic wildness…He produces an effect upon those who enter his style, which can only be compared to that arising from the most unexpected combinations and transitions of the Aeolian harp.

The theme of the slow movement (Larghetto), announced initially by the strings, has a Beethovenian nobility about it which might, in lesser hands, have tempted its composer to continue in the style and succeed in little more than writing a competent pastiche. Ries is more than capable of avoiding that particular trap and from the exquisite entry of the piano to the hushed final bars, delicately scored for strings and horns, the Larghetto is unmistakably Riesian in character. The same might be said for the colourful, driving rondo finale which displays Ries’s customary beguiling combination of the powerful, the beautiful, the quirky and the thrilling.

Ries may not have studied composition with Beethoven—for that he went to Albrechtsberger, Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral—but his influence on Ries’s development as a composer was nonetheless profound. From Beethoven, and indirectly from other composers he admired greatly such as Haydn, Ries gained an appreciation of the importance of meticulous craftsmanship, of finish, in his compositions. This is evident not only in major works such as the concertos but also in more ephemeral pieces such as variations on popular tunes. The two sets of variations on this recording both date from Ries’s years in England and take for their themes well-known English tunes. Written for Ries’s London concerts and intended as lighter, popular vehicles for display, these two works are nonetheless brilliantly conceived and executed. The two works share some common characteristics: they both open with a slow introduction and present a series of variations which initially follow the symmetrical ground plan of their themes but later depart from it in a radical fashion. In detail, however, the works are strikingly different.

The Grand Variations on ‘Rule Britannia’, composed at Hastings in 1817, is an unusually ingenious work. The lengthy slow introduction foreshadows the presentation of the Rule Britannia theme by introducing a fragment of it into the orchestra (the first seven notes) and using this thematic cell as the motivic underpinning of the greater part of the introduction. Assigned finally to the horns, the motive not only anticipates the presentation of the theme but also alludes to its confident, imperious spirit. In the presentation and exploration of the theme, Ries distinguishes between the verse and chorus, assigning the verse to the solo instrument and the chorus to the orchestra. In the autograph, Ries does not label or number the variations but instead numbers the tutti sections: these sections are not merely variations of the chorus but evolve through a process of symphonic development that ultimately shapes the later phases of the work. After four ‘variations’ the rigid symmetry of this phase of the work is abandoned in favour of a more flexible structure encompassing a substantial development section that examines the head motive that we first encountered in the Introduction. A change of metre (to 6/8), tempo (Larghetto) and tonality (A flat major) serves as a major structural point in the movement: it is followed by a resumption of duple metre, Allegro, initially in A flat but modulating back to the tonic (E flat major) in what might be thought of as a lengthy developing coda. Thus, ‘Rule Britannia’ is remarkable for displaying quite marked sonata-form characteristics as well as theme and variations technique. It is intended to be entertaining but its composer has lavished no less care on its creation.

The Introduction et Variations Brillantes, Op. 170, is equally impressive in its way although the work does not display such overt sonata-form characteristics. Nonetheless, there is an exposition of the theme and four variations (which follow a substantial slow introduction), a tonally unstable central section, a deflection to a relatively remote key (once again A flat major, Larghetto, 6/8, but this time it is the relative major of the tonic minor rather than the subdominant) and a lengthy developing coda in the tonic. The exploration of the theme is simpler in some respects than that of the ‘Rule Britannia’ variations, but the piano writing is equally thrilling. The different approach—a concentration on surface detail—might be a subtle allusion to the nature of the theme itself which Ries does not identify: it is the charming Soldier, soldier will you marry me?

 

Allan Badley


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