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Colin Clarke
Fanfare, September 2011

Susan Kagan’s survey of Ferdinand Ries piano music continues in this, the fifth volume of her series. The A-Major Sonata dates from Ries’s final period (it was composed around 1823), and one can perhaps be forgiven for spotting the many parallels with late Beethoven, not least a surprising sparseness of texture, unashamed use of registral extremes, and the emancipation of the trill from a merely decorative function. Over and above all this, there is a feeling of serenity that also mirrors late Beethoven. The Scherzo (A Minor) is interesting. Cast in rondo form, it exudes resolve while encompassing moments of respite. Kagan is superb at delineating each and every mood. She also exhibits superb legato at speed for the moto perpetuo theme of the finale, while articulating the left-hand keening motion (which in other, lesser hands would surely go unnoticed) with great character. Chordal outbursts are purely celebrational.

The A♭-Sonata, op. 176, is Ries’s final essay in this genre (Rome, 1832; his penultimate sonata had also shared this key). After the facility of op. 114’s finale, op. 176’s first movement ruminates on a varity of textures and fragments. Although the mood is optimistic, it is nevertheless exploratory. There is a beautiful civility to the dialogues between voices in the first movement; this element of dialogue is enhanced and expanded in the beautiful Larghetto quasi andante (perfectly paced here by Kagan). The cantabile here is a continual sense of delight, and the richness of Kagan’s tone is expertly retained by Naxos’s engineers (the recording itself is made in the Beethoven-Saal, Hanover). After this, Kagan captures the sweet innocence of the theme of the Ländler third movement perfectly, and contrasts this with the shifting rhythms of the mysterious Trio. What is consistently interesting about this music is how Ries might begin a movement with a gesture or a theme of charm, and the myriad ways he goes on to explore that music’s potentialities. At times quirky, sometimes witty, sometimes tragic, often unpredictable, he is rarely less than fascinating, and often much more.

Kagan sees the B-Minor Sonata as “the starting point for the 14 sonatas of Ries’s oeuvre.” It dates from either 1801 or 1805. It is not a slight work, as it lasts some 22 minutes and begins with an intimate eight-minute slow movement marked Largo molto et appassionato that is followed by a seven-minute Adagio. The first movement reaches its nadir, its darkest point, around two minutes before its end. Kagan gives the silences of the central Adagio full weight. The music speaks eloquently through them. Ries’s textures are surprisingly, daringly bleak at times. Even the finale brings little relief (Allegro agitato), and it ends enigmatically, with the musical equivalent of a raised eyebrow This is a remarkable work that fully deserves to sit with the two later works on the disc.

I really cannot think of anything negative to say about this most recent volume. It takes one on a voyage of discovery that guarantees to delight and fascinate. More, it (at least in my case) inspires one to look further. Ferdinand Ries’s cause could hardly be better championed.



Byzantion
MusicWeb International, July 2011

This is the fifth volume in Naxos’s series of the complete piano sonatas and sonatinas of German composer Ferdinand Ries. It has been available as a download from the Naxos website for a few months already. Volume 4, which was recorded by Susan Kagan at the same time, was enthusiastically reviewed here. With the physical release of this volume, only the three sonatas for piano four hands remain for Kagan and Naxos to add the capstone to this splendid edition—and these are, rumour has it, in the pipeline. Ries’s discography on Naxos has in any case been growing steadily. There are two CDs of chamber works with flute, and four of presumably five volumes of Ries’s complete works for piano with orchestra—vol.3 was reviewed here, and vol.4 can be previewed here.

Stylistically, Ries’s piano music sits somewhere between that of Hummel, Beethoven and Schubert. Between them these four made an immense contribution to the late-Classical/early-Romantic piano sonata, despite the fact that not one of them lived even to see his 60th birthday. Of the four, Ries’s name is probably least known—more often than not relegated to a historical footnote as piano pupil, friend, ‘agent’ and biographer of Beethoven. Yet he is by no means a minor talent, at least as far as piano composition is concerned—he wrote prolifically for his instrument to great acclaim in his time, both by the public and his contemporaries. Nor indeed when it came to piano playing, of which he soon established himself as one of the leading performers in Europe—all the more remarkable an achievement in that he had lost an eye to a childhood illness.

Kagan relates in her notes the mystery regarding the date of the early Sonata in B minor (WoO 11). The inscription on the manuscript reads “Sonate pour le Piano Forte composé par Ferdinand Ries à Munich 1805”, but Ries was in Munich in 1801, and Vienna in 1805. She writes: “The 1801 date appears to be likelier, based on various pieces of evidence, such as the limited range of the piano in the sonata, and the extensive use of an Alberti bass accompaniment. In general, there is a clear jump in compositional technique from WoO 11 to the two sonatas of Op. 1, published in 1806.”

This was Ries’s only unpublished piano sonata, and therefore gives an early glimpse of the treasures that lay ahead. The opening movement not only has a probably unique tempo marking, Largo molto et (sic) appassionato, but is rhythmically striking from the very start. Moreover, for the first minute and a half it sounds like a distorted echo of the opening of Beethoven’s famous so-called “Moonlight” Sonata (op.27/2). After that it picks up the pace, but the moonlit atmosphere continues, and the odd rhythmic push ’n’ pull returns. The slow movement moves tonally back into major, but the mood remains rather saturnine, at least until the final bars. The third movement sounds even more strikingly like Beethoven—this time the final movement of his “Pathétique” sonata (op.13). Beethoven’s opp.13 and 27/2 had both been recently published, and around this time Ries was Beethoven’s copyist, so these likenesses are more than coincidence—Beethoven must have generously taken them as the pupil’s homage they undoubtedly were. Ries was still in his teens when he wrote the B minor Sonata, and though clearly an ‘immature’ work, Ries’s lyricism and ear for rhythm are already in evidence, even if some of his creativity at this stage originated in his great teacher.

By contrast, the Sonata in A, op.114 is the first of Ries’s three mature works in the genre, spaced across a decade. Written around 1823, this is a short, reflective, yet still optimistic work, from the almost childlike simplicity of the opening bars of the theme-and-variations Andantino cantabile first movement. In fact, this is as close as the work gets to a slow movement, as the second and third are both in rondo form: a lively scherzo followed by a cheery finale which is almost like a summary of what has gone before. As might be expected from the date, the Sonata is reminiscent of a Beethoven-Schubert hybrid, but Ries now has a style and sound of his own.

After this sonata, written at the end of an eleven-year stay in London, Ries returned with an English wife, international renown and bulging bank account to his homeland in north-western Germany, where he spent the rest of his life in various local musical activities and composition. But he was in Rome when he wrote his final Sonata in 1832, the A flat, op.176, one of his last works of any kind.

The Sonata is in four movements, something Ries had not tried for nearly 25 years, since his early op.9 no.2 work. On the other hand, he chose the same key as for his penultimate Sonata, op.141 (see vol. 4), where he had used it for the first time. In any case, this work showcases Ries the Romantic, writing for a by this time extended keyboard. Whether or not it represents a summation of Ries’s aspirations in this genre is a moot point; after all, Ries deceased before reaching old age—his father Franz died a week short of his 91st birthday, outliving him by eight years, and his brother Joseph, only six years younger, actually died on his 91st birthday, surviving Ferdinand by an incredible 44 years. Nevertheless, the Sonata is an expressive, wistful, but utterly elegant work, full of Ries’s trademark relaxed lyricism and melodic creativity. It looks forward to Chopin, Mendelssohn and, in the exuberantly classical, and highly memorable, rondo finale, even to Brahms. Yet there are still fond adieux to Beethoven and particularly Schubert—most obviously in the delightful German dance in the third movement.

Although it can easily be rectified in a CD player, the order of works on the disc seems misjudged—a chronological arrangement would have been more satisfying, most of all because the final Allegro of op.176 is Susan Kagan’s finest possible tribute to Ries’s piano sonatas. On the other hand, Kagan’s performance is simply marvellous throughout—she plays with sophistication, expression and humour that Ries himself would certainly have applauded. Kagan is also one of the leading published authorities on Ries’s music, and provides the informative liner notes. The recording and general technical quality are once again first-rate.

Ries wrote a lot of music, and his numerous songs, 26 string quartets, 28 violin sonatas and a heap of other piano music really do urgently need to be made available to the world and posterity in the form of recordings. With luck, Naxos…may be considering some of those projects right now.



Infodad.com, June 2011

Susan Kagan’s fine exploration of the now little-known piano music of Beethoven’s pupil, friend and biographer, Ferdinand Ries, continues in a fifth volume with two of Ries’ most substantial piano sonatas. Op. 114, which dates to 1823—while Beethoven was still alive—is warm, cheerful, serene and lyrical, unchallenging to hear although far from easy to perform. It sounds like a throwback to pre-Beethoven sonatas, although it does have more weight than many of those by, say, Haydn. The final rondo, a moto perpetuo requiring a steady hand and clear sense of rhythm (both of which Kagan possesses), is particularly pleasant. Op. 176, written in 1832, is the last of Ries’ 14 piano sonatas, and it has some intriguing formal characteristics, such as metrical shifts between 6/8 and 9/8 in the expressive slow movement. It remains essentially a Classical-era work, though, with its general air of optimism, its typical-for-Ries final rondo, and a third movement (out of four) labeled as a Scherzo and featuring a Haydnesque contrast between major and minor (the latter in the trio). Both these sonatas are more substantial than the early WoO 11, which probably dates to around 1801—five years before Ries’ two sonatas, Op. 1. This early work’s minor key gives it a somber (although scarcely heavy) feeling, and the third and final movement—not surprisingly, a rondo—shows the influence of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique.” The melodic writing is strong here and the sonata is well put together, but it is not highly original—an issue for much of Ries’ music, but certainly no reason for it to have fallen into near-total obscurity.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2011

If you wonder why Naxos are releasing the complete sonatas and sonatinas by Beethoven’s piano student, Ferdinand Ries, then sample the delights of the early B minor sonata. He was to become an active touring concert pianist who eventually found fame and fortune when living in London. The piano also dominated his compositions, the present release containing two sonatas from his mature years and an unpublished sonata that was presumably from his younger years. And it is that early B minor score that possesses a wonderful freshness and attractive thematic invention that often escaped him in later life. Indeed the vivacious Allegro agitato would have graced any early work by his mentor. That he grew increasingly assured in the development of his material comes in one of his London works, the A major sonata from around 1823. Here he starts unusually with a spacious andante cantabile, followed by an unhurried scherzo and a spinning-wheel finale. His last sonata, in A flat major, dates from 1832 was composed while in Italy. Here he moved back to a four movement format, inspiration seeming to have come from Schubert, Ries’s motivation having dried up. That does not deter the American pianist, Susan Kagan, who is making out a very good case for all of the sonatas, and one can only repeat that she has an obvious affinity and affection with Ries. The recorded sound is pleasing.






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