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8.573063 - RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 6 (Kagan, Primakov) - Opp. 6, 47, 160
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Sonatas and Sonatinas for Piano Duet • 6


Ferdinand Ries, pupil and friend of Beethoven, was one of the greatest pianists of his time, as well as a prolific composer. Born into a professional musical family in Bonn, Germany, he went to Vienna around 1801 and became a piano student and devoted assistant to Beethoven, later contributing to an important early biography of him. In 1813 he moved to London, where he married an Englishwoman, gained popular and financial success as a virtuoso pianist touring Europe, taught, and composed. In 1824 Ries retired to his native Rhineland, eventually settling in Frankfurt, where he died in 1838.

Ries composed in virtually all genres of music, including opera, symphony, concerto, chamber music, sacred music, and song. His works for piano include eight brilliant piano concertos and other virtuosic works for piano and orchestra, fifteen solo sonatas, and dozens of pieces designed for popular consumption, such as variations, rondos, fantasies, and dance pieces, for both solo piano and piano duet (two performers at one keyboard).

The piano sonata occupied a special place in Ries’s output. His first sonatas were modeled on those by CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven, all of whom had worked to perfect the classical sonata “ideal”. Later Ries was influenced by new trends in sonatas by Clementi, Hummel, and the rising generation of early Romantic composers—Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann. He developed a more overtly Romantic style that appealed to the changing public taste. Although he composed only three sonatas for piano duet, these works, like the solo sonatas, reflect his mastery of the classical sonata style and his success in adapting it to the new ideals of the Romantic period.

Cecil Hill, the Australian music historian who studied Ries’s music and published a thematic catalogue of his work, remarked on the inaccuracy of many of the dates in the Ries catalogue. A case in point concerns the origins of the Sonatina in C major, Op 6; despite its early opus number, according to Ries’s own handwritten catalogue it was composed in 1825 when he was living in the city of Godesberg in the Rhine region, but was not published or registered until March 1832. It is small-scale, very simple in style, most likely composed as a teaching piece for students. A miniature of his mature sonatas, it is in four movements, each characterized by charming melodies and short repeated sections. Its innocent charm is reminiscent of the sound of a music-box. The tempos are moderate, the melodic material simple and lyrical, and the technical demands minimal. Three of the four movements are in C; the third movement, an Andante, is in G.

According to a date on the autograph score of the Sonata in B flat, Op 47, it was composed in 1816, around the time Ries established himself in London following successful tours through Europe. The primo and secondo parts are beautifully integrated and balanced. In the first movement (in sonata form) there are distinctly contrasting themes for the various sections; a jaunty theme in D major with dotted rhythms is followed by a melancholic one in D minor. The second movement, Larghetto cantabile, is a lyrical little interlude in E flat. The finale is a rondo, Ries’s favourite form for last movements; this one, marked Allegretto, is in 6/8 metre with dotted rhythms, in the style of a Siciliano.

Sonata in A, Op 160

Published as Grande Sonata and dedicated to Carl Czerny, Ries’s Sonata in A major, Op 160, a large-scale work, is a fitting conclusion to his four-hand piano music. Composed in Frankfurt after Ries’s retirement to the Rhineland, around 1831, the writing makes full use of the extended keyboard, resulting in a rich texture that is often orchestral in sound. The writing is intricate; Ries’s careful division of the main melodic material between the primo and secondo parts provides variety and interest. In this sonata Ries introduces a unique expressive indication for tempo change—a bracketed line over several measures that marks off a section to be played “ein wenig langsamer” (a little slower, or held back). At the end of the bracketed section, the first tempo returns. The intention is apparently to avoid the use of rubato, where the pulse of the music is flexibly slowed down or speeded up within a phrase, but at the same time to allow the music to be fully expressive. This new notation does not seem to have survived in any other works.

The opening movement (A minor) is turbulent and intense; the main theme of the first movement is based on a strong, terse motif in octaves serving as an introduction. The second theme, in C major, is gentle and lyrical. Although Ries generally shows little interest in counterpoint, the extended development section has several imitative sections, with much interplay between the primo and secondo parts. A sudden change to a slow, improvisatory section in B major is the bridge to the recapitulation, and a return to the opening of the movement.

The tempo indication for the second movement (E major)—Adagio con espressione—brings Beethoven to mind, in the profoundly expressive slow movements of some of his early sonatas. The Adagio of this sonata is in an almost operatic style, with extended melodies featuring fioritura in aria-like passages. The form is ABA: a middle section, in an agitated crescendo of triplet figures, reaches a dramatic high point, before slowly returning to the material of the first section.

The finale, in A major, brings another mood entirely: it is a high-spirited, dance-like movement in a lively tempo, far removed from the high drama and seriousness of the first two movements. Its main theme combines a little trill figure with a bouncing staccato phrase in the rhythm and spirit of a jig. Here again Ries’s development of the theme often employs imitation between the parts, with a fugue-like central episode. The high spirits of the finale provide a joyful conclusion to Ries’s final piano sonata.

Susan Kagan

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