About this Recording
8.572742 - RIES, F.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 5 (Hinterhuber, Grodd) - Nos. 2 and 9 / Rondeau brillant
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Concertos, Vol 5

 

In this fifth and final recording of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Ferdinand Ries we encounter the first and last of his published concertos and one of his final essays in the genre he did so much to champion: the large-scale independent concert rondo. As such, this recording broadly frames Ries’s entire creative output in the concerto (the first published work was not the first to be composed) as well as reflecting the profound stylistic shift that began to emerge in the works of Beethoven’s younger contemporaries. When viewed in its entirety, Ries’s cycle of fourteen works for piano and orchestra stands as one of the finest musical achievements of the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Unlike his teacher 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 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 individual publication dates 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 their 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; and the Sixth Concerto, Op 123 (1824), composed in Bonn in 1806. With the publication of these works and a seventh more recent work 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—there are numerous examples of clever motivic manipulation in the concertos—but it is also apparent that they are not thematically-driven in the manner of Beethoven’s works. They are melodically rich but not motivically dense and in this quality 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 eighteenth-century concerto, their internal musical organization differs considerably, particularly in the matter of tonal architecture. Ries’s harmonic vocabulary is not fundamentally different from Mozart’s but the range of tonal relationships is greatly expanded. 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 music demands an expressive flexibility in performance that is almost as foreign to Beethoven as it is 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. That Ries experimented with this approach in his very earliest concerto illustrates his determination first to discover and then to assert his distinctive voice as a composer.

During his eventful tour to Russia in 1811–1812 which culminated in his hurried flight to escape the invading French army, Ries successfully negotiated the publication of his Piano Concerto in E flat with the Leipzig publisher Ambrosius Kühnel. The work appeared in 1812 with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, a fellow Beethoven pupil (albeit one rather more socially exalted than Ries himself) whom the composer had very likely met on occasion in Vienna. Ries probably composed the work with his lengthy European tour in mind and the interpolation of an Air russe in its finale may be an indication that he intended from the outset to perform the work in Russia. If so, then it is an early example of a practice that was to serve Ries very well in the future. In 1813 he wrote the brilliant Introduction and Variations on Swedish National Airs, Op 52 [Naxos 8.557844]—the first independent concert work of its type—for one of his two major concerts in Stockholm, and followed it four years later with the equally clever and highly entertaining Introduction and Variations on the National Air of ‘Rule Britannia’, Op 116 (1817) [Naxos 8.570440] for his English audiences and the lovely Introduction et Variations brillantes in F, Op 170 [Naxos 8.570440] which takes as its theme the tune ‘Soldier, soldier, will you marry me’. If the inclusion of the Air russe was not connected to the tour then it is possible that its inspiration came from Beethoven’s inclusion of Russian themes in his ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets, Op 59.

The composer of the Piano Concerto in E flat was a far more experienced artist than the young man who wrote the C major Concerto in 1806 [Naxos 8.557638]. That work understandably exhibited numerous stylistic influences from Beethoven’s First and Third Concertos in spite of its often strikingly individualistic touches, but in the Op 42 Concerto Ries succeeds in creating a more consistently distinctive style of musical expression in spite of the overwhelming impression that Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos must have made on him. What Ries had learned in the course of the previous few years was how to conform to structural and stylistic expectations on a fundamental level and yet do so in imaginative and even subversive ways. This is evident from the outset in the E flat Concerto with its prolonged avoidance of the tonic at the opening of the first ritornello and the introduction of the second theme, with its clever motivic link to earlier material, in the relative minor. The dissolution of this charming and rather quirky theme into strident, militaristic fanfares is skilfully accomplished and demonstrates a new level of technical virtuosity in Ries’s work. It is in the piano writing, however, that we see the new flexibility in Ries’s writing both on the expressive and structural level; the interpolation of a lengthy cadenza before the arrival of the second theme, cast in the dominant minor rather than the relative minor signalled in the opening ritornello, is particularly effective. Ries’s handling of the orchestra, already impressive in the C major Concerto, also displays advances particularly in the writing for the wind instruments. Even the timpani’s rôle is expanded to enable it to combine in solo passages with the piano.

Ries’s sense of instrumental colour is also to the fore in the exquisite Larghetto slow movement with its haunting clarinet solo above unison pizzicato strings. Once again the movement begins with a strong element of tonal ambiguity. Although notated in A flat major the music remains resolutely in the minor mode throughout its opening phases before modulating far and wide in the central part of the movement. The piano naturally plays a prominent rôle in the evolving musical drama, at times embellishing the thematic material and at others providing a rippling wash of background colour against which the music unfolds. The increased flexibility of Ries’s tonal thinking is apparent towards the close of the movement at which the orchestra settles on a B flat—very distant from the opening of the Larghetto in A flat minor—but now revealed to be the dominant of E flat, the key of the Finale: this serves as the launching pad for a brief cadenza-like passage (technically an Eingang) which links the Larghetto to the Rondo Finale.

One of Ries’s many gifts as a composer was the ability to write memorable rondo themes; the theme to the Finale of the Op 42 Concerto is no exception. The theme itself incorporates quirky, offbeat acciaccature in the solo part which suggest a certain exoticism as does some of the early and slightly manic episodic material. The Air russe, carefully labelled as such in the score, forms the basis of the central episode of the rondo and its development. Given the nature of the earlier material it is likely that the use of this theme was part of Ries’s conception of the movement from the outset. It adds a thrilling dimension both to the Finale and to the work as a whole. It is hardly surprising that Ries chose to make his début in London with this concerto on 21 May 1813 in spite of his recent première of the Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 55 [Naxos 8.557638].

After his retirement from the London concert stage in 1823 Ries returned to his native Rhineland living first at Bad Godesberg and later in Frankfurt. He remained active both as a composer and performer throughout the 1820s and 1830s. He was director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival eight times between 1824 and 1837 and in 1834 he was appointed head of the city orchestra and Singakademie in Aachen. The Introduction et Rondeau brillant, Op 144, composed in 1825, follows the structural models that he had developed in the works composed since the ‘Swedish’ Variations of 1813. In common with several of these works, the rondo theme of Op 144 is foreshadowed in the introduction. The theme is not derived from the arresting opening bars in the orchestra, however, but from the idea presented first by the piano. Although this theme and the rondo theme that follows are closely related, the change of tempo and recasting of the surface detail utterly transforms its character. The return of a truncated version of the original introductory theme towards the end of the movement reasserts the fundamental importance of the link between the two major sections of the work while highlighting their expressive differences. It is as typical of Ries’s care with structural planning, the consequence of his deep admiration for Beethoven’s music, as the virtuosic demands of the solo writing is of his distinctive style of pianism. The clarity and brilliance of Ries’s orchestration also contributes to the appeal of the work.

Nearly eight years were to elapse before Ries composed the Concerto in G minor, Op 177, the last of his eight piano concertos. On the surface the work does not appear to represent a significant advance on the earlier concertos in its musical structures, style of pianism and expressive range. Even the choice of tonality is not especially remarkable by this time given the increased prevalence of minor mode works and indeed it is arguably less enterprising than Ries’s choice of C sharp minor in the Third Concerto composed in 1812. Nonetheless, the G minor Concerto displays a further refinement of technique in the way in which Ries organizes his large-scale musical structures and critically in his writing for orchestra.

One of the fascinating aspects of Ries’s oeuvre (and Beethoven’s too for that matter) is the way in which so many apparently revolutionary details in the late works had been anticipated in his earlier compositions. In the case of Op 177, for example, the opening of the movement is tonally ambiguous: it sounds for all the world as if the work is in B flat major and it is only after a few bars that one realizes that the correct key is G minor. This elliptical approach to establishing the tonic is similar to that encountered in the E flat Concerto but it is compressed in time. Similarly, the second movement, which is cast in D major, creates the illusion of a link to the Finale by suggesting that it is functioning as the dominant of the next movement, a technique he had employed in a slightly different manner in the Op 42 Concerto.

One of the most remarkable features of Op 177 is its orchestration. Ries’s writing for wind instruments had been impressive from the outset of his career and his fascination with their distinctive qualities is evident in works such as the Grand Septuor, Op 25, the Piano Quintet in B minor, Op 74 and the Grand Ottetto, Op 128. His writing for horns and trumpets in his orchestral works remained by comparison somewhat limited largely on account of the physical design of the instruments. In the G minor Concerto, however, we see a new flexibility in writing for the horns, one in which the instruments play in a wide variety of keys within the same movement. Ries features the horns prominently throughout the work signalling their expanded role by assigning them important thematic material. Nonetheless, fine though the orchestration undoubtedly is, our attention is almost invariably focussed on the soloist. Ries’s piano writing shows no weakening of inspiration in its thematic ideas nor does it suggest that his powers as a performer were in any way diminished. The stamina required to perform the outer movements is immense and the lilting, Larghetto con moto second movement with its exquisite filigree embellishments and subtle manipulation of internal metre demands the finest of musical sensibilities to perform it as perhaps Ries himself did. It is difficult to imagine Ries’s audience reacting with any less enthusiasm than they had at his numerous other premières and yet from this time on his star began to wane as younger composers and performers began to take centre stage. Within five years of its composition both he and Hummel were dead and with them the last links to the golden age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were severed.


Allan Badley


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