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Laura RĂ³nai
Fanfare, August 2008

…John Herrick Littlefield was responsible for bringing to light a tasty slice of repertoire that had been largely overlooked: the Ries quartets for flute and strings, which are now being released by Naxos. He has earned eternal gratitude from flutists and music-lovers, and I include myself in both categories (before someone corrects me on this, not all flutists are music-lovers). Naxos should also be praised, since, besides these quartets, the label is releasing Ries’s complete piano concertos, in excellent interpretations by Christopher Hinterhuber and the New Zealand Symphony orchestra under the baton of Uwe Grodd. Thus, slowly, Ries is finally occupying the place in music history (or at least in discography) that is rightly his…A contemporary opinion about Ries’s talents as a pianist, published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, could easily be applied to his art as a composer: “Ries showed a very poetic, expressive style, as well as unusual skill and sureness in the easy overcoming of the most difficult passages.”

The flute quartets recorded here show a composer open to all sorts of influences, from the classical quartets of Haydn and Mozart to the lush Iberian music that was starting to be appreciated in the rest of Europe and would later become a fad…

To my taste, the whole style of interpretation seems a few decades old, with a very literal attitude towards the written page. But apart from these objections, this recording is still a valid introduction to a fascinating figure that deserves to be better known. It will be of interest to all flutists, and to the many lovers of the music of Beethoven’s time.

Laura Ronai
Fanfare, July 2008

…this recording is…a fascinating figure that deserves to be better known. It will be of interest to all flutists, and to the many lovers of the music of Beethoven’s time.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, April 2008

Ries’s music displays a startling originality and clever craftsmanship that lends itself very freely to the ear and emotions. I can honestly say that I have never heard a piece by him that I did not instantly like.

The three Flute Quartets on this disc are a product of Ries’s retirement years, and show themselves to be completely mature masterworks of the highest order. They will remind you of Beethoven, yet there is something about them that Ries makes his own. At the same time the evident mastery of form and marvelous inventiveness of melody and structure belong to a composer of the most consummate abilities.…If you don’t know Ries you should certainly try him out one way or another.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, March 2008

…while most listeners probably won’t be blown out of their seats by this music, it is fairly imaginative, always charming, and certainly worth exploring for those who enjoy the sound of a flute joined by three string instruments.

These are very capable performances… © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, February 2008

Ferdinand Ries is hardly a household name. He is conspicuous by his absence from the 2008 editions of the Gramophone Guide and the Penguin Guide. That said, he seems to be emerging from neglect. CPO have recorded his symphonies and Naxos already have several recordings of his music, including his Clarinet Trio, Op.28 (coupled with Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio on 8.553389) and the Piano Concerto, Op.55 with other works (8.557844). A colleague made their recording of his Piano Concertos Op.123 and Op.151 Recording of the Month (8.557638 : “An hour of sheer delight here.”) Another beat me to the draw in reviewing this present CD, generally in favourable terms.

A whole generation of musicians lived under the shadow of the triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, especially of Beethoven, and Ries was inevitably one of those. Brahms took years to shake off the influence of Beethoven—even when he finally published his First Symphony, it was unkindly dubbed ‘Beethoven’s tenth’ in some quarters: as Brahms admitted, any ass could see that. What chance then was there for Ries, a friend and pupil of the great master and of Beethoven’s own teacher Albrechtsberger and, in any case, hardly a musical giant, despite his name?

These Flute Quartets are, perhaps, less under the spell of the Great Man than Ries’s other works. Not only are they attractive and well worth hearing, though hardly very memorable, they are in a form which Beethoven never employed. As far as I am aware the Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 25, is the nearest he came. Mozart had however done so, despite his expressed aversion to the flute. For a recommendable version of the Mozart Flute Quartets and the Beethoven Serenade, see Patrick Waller’s review of the Avie version (Lisa Beznosiuk, etc, on AV2108) : “Delectable—if you want to forget the cares of the 21st century for an hour or so, this may be the answer.” Neither the music nor the performances on this Naxos disc are quite up to that standard, though they come pretty close.

If Mozart was Ries’s model, these works go beyond their original in scope and sometimes in variety and imagination, though they lack the last degree of sheer charm of the Mozart Flute Quartets. Ries was more cosmopolitan than Beethoven, touring extensively, including in England. Of course, he need never have set foot outside Vienna to have absorbed a variety of influences, such as the Spanish element in the finale of the First Quartet, marked Allegro all’espagnola, but no doubt it helped.

These quartets were the work of Ries’s retirement when he had absorbed a variety of musical experiences. Having made his fortune, he was able to enjoy prosperity on his Rhineland estate.

The variety within that First Quartet, with echoes of Mozart and Beethoven in the earlier movements and the very different Spanish flavour in the finale, is not quite matched in the other two, but the three works as a whole add up to a worthwhile and varied concert, as if they were intended to be played together.

The Second Quartet provides a contrast with both the first and third—a darker work in the dominant minor (e minor) of the A major Third Quartet, itself perhaps the least derivative of the three, though with a hint of Schubert at times, especially in the Allegro finale. The opening Allegro moderato of the Second Quartet seems at times reminiscent of Beethoven—the middle- rather than the late-period quartets—by which I don’t mean to imply that it is derivative: the lighter touches which soften the mood are different from any Beethoven model. Nor do I mean to imply that the music is too self-contented: Ries’s comfortable retirement expresses itself in roundedness rather than complacency. These works are far from being the musical equivalent of Jane Austen—not my favourite author, you may gather—who prided herself on the narrow limits of her writing.

The performances are generally good, certainly good enough to make the music enjoyable, and responding well to the varied moods within and between the quartets. I was not all that less bothered by the minor technical flaws here and there.  Littlefield’s playing might well have won over Mozart to the instrument, even if he was really as averse as he claimed to be, and his string colleagues’ playing is not far behind.

The recording is also good: rounded and neither too forward nor too backward, with plenty of separation of the instruments. Some have felt that the cello could have been more prominent; whilst I would have agreed after listening to the CD on one set-up, with the lighter-toned Monitor Audio BR5 speakers, my other set-up, with Arcam Solo + Monitor Silver speakers, brought out the cello to my satisfaction. Conversely, this Arcam/Monitor Silver setup can over-emphasise the bass on some recordings, especially on reissues of older ADD material.

These quartets are performed in editions by J.H. Littlefield himself, the flautist on the recording, who has also written the short but informative notes in the booklet. Littlefield admits that he has been unable to trace Charles Aders, to whom the Quartets were dedicated, but the German translator, Cris Posslac, has added a helpful footnote, identifying him with the same amateur to whom Franz Danzi’s three Flute Quintets, Op.50, were dedicated, a note which Naxos might well have included with the English version.

The cover is the usual Naxos model of good taste—more tasteful than many full-price issues—with an attractive contemporary print of a Rhineland scene, such as Ries might perhaps have seen from in his retirement in that area.

Carla Rees
MusicWeb International, January 2008

I hadn’t heard much of Ries’s music before this CD. His father, Franz, had been Beethoven’s violin teacher, and Ferdinand was sent to study piano under Beethoven in Vienna. At Beethoven’s suggestion, he also studied composition with Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger. Ferdinand Ries and Beethoven remained friends for the duration of Beethoven’s life. He went to England in 1813, where he remained for eleven years, before returning to retire to Germany in 1824, where these flute quartets were written.

Revived through research by this CD’s flute player, John Herrick Littlefield, these three quartets are varied in character. The Quartet No. 1 in C major has a distinctly classical feel, with quotes from Mozart. Beethoven’s influence can also be keenly felt, especially in the third movement, Scherzo and Trio. The finale, Allegro all’espagnola, is full of Spanish character and demonstrates the more fun-filled side of Ries’s personality. Littlefield handles the technical passages well, despite occasional lapses in the clarity of articulation.

The E minor Quartet begins with a grandiose opening, followed by virtuosic semiquaver displays. This is handled well by all the performers, with evenness and security of technique. The balance is good and John Herrick Littlefield’s sound soars over the strings. The strings match each other well in conversational passages and the intonation is good. The Andante is expressive and played with sensitivity and delicate phrasing. There is a charming moment in the Trio section of the Menuet and Trio [Track 7, 1:39] which once again gives away a light-hearted view of the composer. The players control this change of character well, and their sound is full of charm.

The final quartet follows on seamlessly from the previous one, as it is in the dominant, and feels almost as if this group of three were intended to be heard as a set. There are some minor string intonation issues here, but this brief moment is followed by some fine playing from the violin and viola. The Allegro is played with passion and building tensions; this is very much composed in the Romantic style one would expect from the dates of the composer (1784–1838). Following a stylishly performed Adagio, the final movement is a cheerful Allegro, providing a rousing and entertaining ending to the set of quartets.

Overall, the playing is generally good; Littlefield and his colleagues clearly have and understanding and enjoyment of the music…the sense of ensemble is good, and one gets the impression that these players have worked together for a number of years. The recording quality is good, with each line clearly defined, though I would perhaps have liked the cello to have been brought out more in the balance. The music is enjoyable to listen to; while perhaps not of the same quality of Beethoven, these pieces make an interesting addition to the concert repertoire.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

Last month I was describing a disc of piano concertos by Ferdinand Ries as ‘a real discovery’. He was the son of Franz Anton Ries, the mentor of the young Beethoven who in turn became the piano teacher to Ferdinand. It was to be a pupil-teacher relationship that formed a lasting friendship. Born in Germany in 1784, it was a move to London in 1813 that changed Ferdinand’s life, the dearth of quality musicians working in England at the time elevating him to the country’s finest pianist-composer. Over the next seventeen years he created such a large personal fortune that at the age of 40 he retired, returning with his English wife to live in his native Rhineland. He composed a large catalogue dominated by music involving the keyboard, though the wealth of composers that followed his death quickly sent his music into oblivion, the three Flute Quartets rediscovered only in the 1970’s. They appear to have been written in his years of ‘retirement’, and were scored for a conventional string trio with the flute acting as the solo instrument. Ries has often been accused of copying Beethoven, though here he returned to Mozart for his inspiration, the music elegant and generous in its thematic material. The performing version comes from John Herrick Littlefield who found the parts in Washington’s Library of Congress “filled with errors and inconsistencies”. It was Littlefield who gave their first performance in modern times, and I would love to hear them played on a period wooden flute to add a rustic element the music seems to needs. Still let us be grateful for these are genial scores ably presented and well worth hearing.

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