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WRUV Reviews, August 2010

The prolific composer Ferdinand Ries, friend of Beethoven, was also overlooked because of Beethoven’s success. These pieces show the trends that the sonata was experiencing and reveal influences of other composers, including Beethoven.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, March 2009

Susan Kagan is a pianist and critic (Fanfare) whose credits include recordings with the great violinist Josef Suk. Her Ph.D. dissertation focused on the music of Archduke Rudolph. She co-edited the scores of the present works with Allan Badley (available on Artaria Editions). Kagan also provides the knowledgeable booklet notes here.

The Op. 11 Sonatas were written when Ries was living in Paris—they were not published until 1816. Ries’ music sits somewhere in between Beethoven and the early Romantics. In the first movement of the first sonata we hear, Op. 11/2, there are some very proto-Schubertian spread chords early on, but the unrest of the development section clearly comes from a Beethovenian direction. The central Larghetto is expressive and lends itself to ever more elaborate embellishment. Kagan is superb at the decorations but seems less convincing in the simpler opening. This movement actually reveals depths one might not expect from this composer. The finale is along the lines of a tarantella, with its typical unwillingness to slow down and draw breath. The Sonata op. 11/1, which follows in the playing order, boasts a calm first movement that speaks more of breadth than of drama. Kagan is in her element here—she is a musical, gentle player—just as she is in the delicacy of the central Andante which has just the right amount of forward movement to it. The finale is a set of variations on a Russian melody. It’s a melody used again in Ries’ Variations, Op. 14, for piano duet. Kagan gives it a peasant-like tinge on its first appearance. The likeable variations take in the pleasantly spiky as well as elements of mild comedy.

The disc is rounded off by a two-movement Sonatina. This was actually originally published, by Clementi, under the title of “Sonata”. It was composed while Ries was touring Russia in 1811/12. Its whole demeanour is small-scale, and appealingly so. There is an all-pervading melancholy to the first movement, though, balanced by the deliberately naïve nature of the Allegretto scherzando finale. 

The recording is well rounded and fine without being out of the absolute top drawer. The upper-mid to upper registers are a little on edge. This is the beginning of what will clearly be a delightful, and useful, series. 

The Classicsonline download “extra” of this particular release is the finale of Hummel’s Piano Sonata No. 9 in C.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, January 2009

By all rights, Susan Kagan should be reviewing this CD; but then that would pose a serious conflict of interest, given that she is the performing artist…for she has become not only a champion of Ferdinand Ries but also a foremost authority on his music; and for the Naxos label she has embarked on a project to record the composer’s complete keyboard œuvre. This is Volume 1.

Ries (1784–1838) is often unfairly judged as little more than Beethoven’s amanuensis and gofer. In exchange, Beethoven gave him piano lessons, but refused to teach him composition, a refusal Beethoven extended to all his students. It has also been suggested that in the IQ department Ries may not have been the brightest button in the sewing kit. Yet for all the charges that his relationship with Beethoven stifled his own creativity and independence, Ries established himself as a successful concertizing pianist, appeared regularly in Salomen’s Philharmonic concert series during his years in London, and wrote nine piano concertos, eight symphonies, and a considerable volume of chamber music, including over two-dozen string quartets. Late in life, (1837) living with his wife in Germany, he was commissioned to write a large oratorio, Die Könige in Israel, which, more than any other of his works at least assured him passing mention in the music history texts.

Like many of the early Romantics—Moscheles, Hummel, Kuhlau, John Field, Kalkbrenner, Wölfl, and countless others—Ries was an offspring of the genetic struggle for influence and dominance between father—Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven—and mother—Weber-Mendelssohn-Chopin; and, like Schubert, he was caught right in the middle of it. It is hardly surprising then that Ries’s works should exhibit certain bipolar characteristics.

…Kagan’s playing…reveals her dedication and commitment to this body of neglected work. These are not technically easy pieces to play, either in terms of pure keyboard dexterity or in terms of making sense of some of Ries’s quirky figurations and mercurial shifts of gears; yet Kagan navigates them flawlessly. I am equally certain that interpretively she makes as strong a case for Ries as possible.

I’m all for exploring the tributaries of music history, especially those that run parallel to the 19th-century Romantic mainstream, even if not every one of them floats my boat. Kagan and Naxos are both to be commended for undertaking this project, and it is to be hoped that they will be repaid by a renewed interest in a composer whose music deserves to be heard., October 2008

The three piano works on Susan Kagan’s CD—the first in a planned series devoted to Ries’ sonatas and sonatinas—were all written during Beethoven’s lifetime, the two sonatas around 1807-8 and the sonatina around 1811-2. The F minor sonata is by far the most interesting work here, sounding again and again like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata, written a decade earlier. Ries’ work has drive, determination and deep emotion, although its ending is a disappointment: it simply flies away and evaporates instead of reaching a climax. Still, it is well constructed and definitely worth hearing. The E-flat sonata is of lesser interest, with more serenity and less drama, although its theme-and-variations finale shows considerable inventiveness. The two-movement Sonatina in A minor has an expressive opening movement and a brighter second one, and comes across as something of a miniature. Kagan plays all the works with enthusiasm, and they are certainly intriguing enough to make the prospect of additional Ries piano CDs an appealing one.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, September 2008

The works of Beethoven's friend and erstwhile pupil Ferdinand Ries are not to be dismissed as anything less than accomplished, even if Ludwig's shadow often looms over them. Susan Kagan brings a master's touch and serious approach to these two lovely sonatas, elevating them to a perhaps higher plane than they merit, but all in good taste and impeccable artistry. The sonatina is a delightful topping to this delicious offering.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2008

Franz Anton Ries taught the violin to the young Beethoven, and it was to Beethoven that he sent his son, Ferdinand, to be his piano student. It proved a relationship that grew into a lasting friendship, Beethoven eventually sending his protege to Johann Albrechtsberger, to be his composition mentor. From therein Ries became a very active concert pianist touring extensively around Europe, though it was his move to London in 1813 that changed his life. The dearth of quality musicians quickly placed him as England’s finest pianist-composer of his time. He was to build such a personal fortune that at the age of 40 he retired, returning with his English wife to his native Rhineland. He had composed a sizeable catalogue, including stage works and symphonies, though it was music involving the piano that dominated his output. Eight concertos have survived and an edition of Sonatas and Sonatinas. In reviewing an album of his Piano Concertos last September I described them as ‘a discovery’, but the present release does not generated such enthusiasm. Yes, you will hear a decorative style of writing that was a foretaste of Chopin’s music yet to come, and the inspiration that had been passed down from Beethoven. But there is a lot of academic padding that is pleasant, yet lacking the melodic invention that would place him above that oft used description as a ‘talented kapellmeister’. In the two opus 11 sonatas he seems to be trying too hard to create something worthy of the great composers around him. Yet turn to the opus 45 Sonatina and there is charm, lightness and happiness. The American pianist, Susan Kagan, obviously has an attraction to this period of music, and her playing is suitably nimble and nicely paced. Some of the phrase endings could have been more moulded as they seem to end in mid-air, but we will wait to see how the series unfolds before passing judgement. The recorded sound is very good.

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