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8.570796 - RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 1 (Kagan) - Opp. 11, 45
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas • 1

 

Ferdinand Ries is known mainly through his connection with Beethoven, as his family friend, piano student, and early biographer. Ries’s connections with Beethoven began in Bonn and continued in Vienna, and later in London. Born in 1784, when Beethoven was fourteen, Ferdinand was the son of Franz Ries, violinist in the Electoral Court orchestra, who taught Beethoven the violin and befriended his family during Beethoven’s youth. Largely self-taught, Ferdinand first studied in Munich, but around 1803 he went to Vienna to study the piano with Beethoven, who sent him to the noted theorist-composer Johann Albrechtsberger for composition lessons. Ries was probably Beethoven’s closest friend during this period, carrying out all kinds of musical and secretarial tasks for him, copying parts, making transcriptions and arrangements, proof-reading and seeing to publications. Later, after years of touring as a concert pianist and a short stay in Paris, Ries settled in London and married an Englishwoman. Even then he continued to act on Beethoven’s behalf.

Ries was a gifted and prolific composer in every instrumental genre, whose works, like those of so many composers of the time, were largely overshadowed by Beethoven’s huge presence. Still, in his lifetime his music was published and widely known to the music-loving public. A brilliant pianist, Ries made his début in Vienna in 1804, playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. He toured for many years throughout Europe, including Russia, to great acclaim, and was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In his lifetime virtually everything he composed was published, and often issued again by different publishers, attesting to his popularity. Eventually in 1824 he and his family left England and lived in Bad Godesburg near his home town in the Rhineland until finally settling in 1830 in Frankfurt am Main, where he conducted and continued to compose until his death.

Ries began composing his piano sonatas at a time when the genre was undergoing significant changes. His models were those of the great classicists, C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, who had perfected the sonata “ideal”. Later he was influenced by new trends in sonatas of Beethoven, Clementi, Hummel, and others. Ries was a master of the prevailing classical forms, sonata form, ABA (song) form, rondo, and variations, and that mastery, as well as striking originality, can be seen in all his compositions. What is most remarkable, however, is Ries’s anticipation of the style of the great piano composers of the early Romantic period, of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, who were not yet born or still young children when he was at the peak of his piano sonata composition, from about 1805 to 1818. Schubert’s poignant harmonic language, Mendelssohn’s expressive, sweet melodies, Chopin’s brilliant figuration, all of these features figure in Ries’s piano writing in his sonatas, well ahead of their full flowering in the Romantic period after 1830. His last two sonatas, composed in 1826 and 1832, reflect the change to a showy style more appealing to public taste.

Robert Schumann, reviewing a work by Ries in 1835 in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, noted his “remarkable originality”. Like Schubert he had an abundance of lyrical melodic ideas in constant flow. This is borne out in his many sonata-form movements, where the first theme, the second, and the closing theme are each distinctive, and ingeniously developed. Among significant characteristics of Ries’s style, many of which were to become hallmarks of the language of Romanticism, are dramatic dynamic contrasts, abrupt changes in tempo and mood, harmonic shifts, fluent ornate figuration, wide stretches and leaps, and radical use of the sustaining pedal to blur harmonies.

The publication of the two Sonatas, Op. 11, No. 1 in E flat major and No. 2 in F minor, was announced in 1816, but both had been composed earlier, around the years 1807- 08, while Ries was living in Paris. Both exhibit many of the Romantic traits above.

The first movement of the Sonata in E flat, in sonata form and marked Allegro moderato, unfolds serenely. The lyrical A flat slow movement (Andante) sustains the mood of the first; its opening section is repeated twice, each time with a florid embellishment of the right-hand theme. The finale, a set of variations on a Russian melody, was used again in Ries’s variations for piano duet (Op. 14). The theme is folk-like, marked by off-beat accents, with a heavy bass accompaniment. The seven variations that follow are typically a mix of virtuoso and lyrical styles with inventive figuration, capped by a brilliant little coda.

The second Sonata in F minor contrasts markedly with the first in emotional impact. The first movement opens with a slow sombre introduction in D flat major, ending with a brief melodic figure that serves as a motif on which the melodic material of the entire movement is built. The main section of the F minor Allegro is impassioned and intense, its theme rising dramatically in little bursts. A second theme, in A flat major, is lyrical, as is a closing theme; but the character of the movement is one of impulsive, soaring romantic energy and brilliance. The lovely slow movement, in F major, is in complete contrast, with lyrical themes and a serene mood. The finale is a whirlwind of motion, a tarantella in moto perpetuo, with rapid triplet figuration. In the development section of the movement there is a rare example (for Ries) of a fugal section, followed by a recapitulation of the main theme and a short coda, in which the motion continues breathlessly through the last measure, vanishing quietly into thin air.

The Sonatina in A minor, Op. 45, was probably composed while Ries was on tour in Russia in 1811-12. The title page of the first edition, published by Clementi in 1817, clearly declares it “Sonata for the Pianoforte”. Comprising two movements only, it is smaller in scope than the other sonatas. The first movement, a miniature sonata form, is tinged with a kind of expressive melancholy, perhaps owing to the descending minor second that dominates the main theme. The second movement is a jaunty, dance-like rondo in A major, with a contrasting central section in D minor. Small in scope, perhaps, but both movements of this sonata illustrate perfectly Ries’s masterful handling of form.

Susan Kagan


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