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8.570743 - RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 2 (Kagan) - Opp. 1, 5
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas • 2


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 piano with Beethoven, who sent him to the noted theorist-composer Johann Albrechtsberger for composition studies. 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 he and his family left England, settling finally 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 two Op. 1 Sonatas, published by Simrock in Bonn in 1807, bear the dedication “à Louis van Beethoven par son élève”, and include a preface (in French) expressing Ries’s reverent appreciation of his teacher’s kindness and friendship toward him. Sonata No. 1, actually composed after the second, is dated, in Ries’s hand, “1806 à Bonn”.The autograph of Sonata No. 2 states “composé par F. Ries 1804”. We can only speculate as to what, if any, input Beethoven had in their composition; he was Ries’s piano teacher only. Still, original as these two sonatas are, the influence of Beethoven is often apparent. Within a few short years Ries was to break away from this influence and develop the romantic style described earlier. The sonatas were favourably reviewed by the important critic and editor Friedrich Rochlitz, who, although finding fault with some details, praised Ries’s craftsmanship and command of form.

The first sonata, unlike the majority of Ries’s sonatas, is in four movements. The strong opening theme of the first movement, with its dotted rhythms, leaps, double thirds and broken octaves, brings to mind Beethoven’s Op. 2, No. 3 in the same key. The Adagio ma non tanto, in 2/4 time and the key of F, is simple and lyrical. The Menuetto, suitably dance-like, explores the distant key of E major in the trio section. Ries often favours rondos for last movements, and this sonata is no exception: in 2/4 metre, it follows a classic rondo form, A-B-A-C-A-Coda. In the C section there is a change to minor and a new metre (6/8). The return to the rondo theme is handled ingeniously, as the 6/8 accompaniment figure in the left hand is gradually assimilated into the 2/4 rhythm of the melody.

The first movement of the Sonata in A minor, Op. 1, No. 2, gentle in character, fluctuates in tonality between A minor and E minor; the closing theme of the exposition, often the place for a striking melodic idea in Ries’s sonata-form movements, is especially lovely and wistful. The middle movement, functioning as a combined slow movement and scherzo, is a sprightly staccato dance-like piece in F major, in 2/4 time. The graceful finale is in sonata form, its main contrast between a flowing first theme and a second theme dominated by triplets and staccato chords.

The composition of the two small-scale sonata works of Op. 5, entitled Fifth Sonatina and Sixth Sonatina when published in 1823 by Clementi, probably dates from about 1806–08. They were possibly inspired by the recent publication of Beethoven’s two sonates faciles, Op. 49; or too, Ries may also have been responding to Rochlitz’s criticism of his Op. 1 sonatas as being “excessively difficult”. Both sonatinas are perfect miniature exemplars of Ries’s mastery of form.

The Sonatina in B flat major, Op. 5, No. 1, could be early Mozart or Haydn. The first movement is a perfect little sonata form; the themes, especially the closing theme of the exposition in the new dominant key of F, are sprightly and charming. The slow movement, in E flat major, is in ABA form, and the third movement is Ries’s favourite for finales, a rondo (ABACBA). The perky rondo theme, in 6/8 metre, strongly resembles the finale of Beethoven’s first Violin Sonata, Op. 12, No. 1. Ries achieves dramatic contrast in the C section of the rondo, which is in the minor. All three movements are in moderate tempos.

The sunny innocence of the first movement of the Sonatina in F major, Op. 5, No. 2, is belied by its second theme, in a gruff minor. The slow movement is in D minor, a small ABA form, where the B section is a variation of A. Another rondo, folk-like and vivacious, closes the sonatina.

Small-scale these sonatinas may be, but they demonstrate Ries’s unending melodic invention, sense of proportion, and skilful construction.

Susan Kagan

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