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Robert Reilly
CatholiCity, December 2010

RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 2 (Kagan) – Op. 1, 5 8.570743
RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 3 (Kagan) – Op. 9, No. 2 and Op. 26, “L’infortunee” / The Dream, Op. 49 8.572204
RIES, F.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 4 (Hinterhuber, Grodd) – Nos. 4 and 5, “Pastoral” / Introduction and Rondeau Brilliant 8.572088

The Naxos label has stayed true to the music of Beethoven student and biographer Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838) by issuing volume No. 4 of his Piano Concertos (Op. 120 and Op. 115), as well as Vols. 2 and 3 of Ries’s Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (8.572204 and 8.57229), superbly played by Susan Kagan. The concertos (Naxos 8.572088) display a muscular, rugged, Beethoven-like character and are robustly performed by pianist Christopher Hinterhuber and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Uwe Grodd. Anyone interested in late Classical/early Romantic music will find these CDs fascinating., December 2010

RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 3 (Kagan) – Op. 9, No. 2 and Op. 26, “L’infortunee’ / The Dream, Op. 49 8.572204
RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 4 (Kagan) – Op. 9, No. 1 and Op. 141 8.572299

The sonatas by Beethoven’s sometime pupil, Ferdinand Ries, are far lesser creations than those of the master, but Susan Kagan’s ongoing recordings of them make a strong case for them to be heard at least occasionally. The works in both volumes 3 and 4 of Kagan’s series are unmistakably in line with those in the first two volumes: melodically charming, strong in their forward impetus, and existing mostly on the borderline between Classical times and Romantic. Far less challenging to play or hear than Beethoven’s sonatas, those by Ries nevertheless have numerous moments of virtuosity and quite a few of lucidity. And some of Ries’ piano works definitely look forward. The Dream, for example, stands out in Kagan’s third volume as a moody tone poem—and, at nearly 19 minutes, a substantial one. It meanders like a fantasy, its moods shifting almost capriciously, and eventually ends with a level of playfulness somewhat out of keeping with its earlier emotional underpinnings; but taken as a whole, it is a very fine and convincing work—and one that shows Ries exploring directions that Beethoven himself did not. On the other hand, the same volume’s Op. 26 sonata—“The Unfortunate,” the only Ries sonata with a title—shows the composer clearly walking in Beethoven’s footsteps: this work, dating to 1808, is very similar in style and mood to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata of 1799, of which it seems a pale reflection (although it is written in the key of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony). In volume 4 of the Ries series, the more interesting work is the Op. 141 sonata, the second-to-last that Ries composed. It dates to 1826, the year before Beethoven’s death, and was written for a piano with greater range and sonorousness than those in use in earlier times. Here the first movement, the most successful of the three, mixes fingerings that will remind listeners of Chopin with sections of considerable drama. The second movement is expressive enough, but shows much of Beethoven’s influence, as do so many of Ries’ works, and therefore seems rather derivative; while the concluding rondo, which bounces along in a bright and effective manner, seems rather too light and buoyant for what has come before. The Ries works in Kagan’s third and fourth volumes confirm the impression made by those in the first and second: Ries was more craftsman than innovator, certainly a skilled pianist and fine composer for his instrument, but only rarely able to move beyond Beethoven’s shadow to develop works stamped with his individual personality. And yet all these rarely played sonatas have elements of interest—in some cases, quite a few of them—and are worth hearing at least once in a while.

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, November 2010

this one is very well played and recorded…proves to be well worth having.

To read complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2010

Fanfare’s own Susan Kagan has been performing a real service on behalf of Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838). This is her third volume dedicated to the composer’s piano sonatas and sonatinas. I was privileged to review Volume 1 in Fanfare 32:3; Colin Clarke reviewed Volume 2 in 32:5; and here Volume 3 falls once again to me. Kagan, who is not only a highly accomplished pianist but also a distinguished musicologist who has written her own booklet notes and co-edited some of this music with Allan Badley, has surely become today’s leading advocate for and exponent of Ries’s keyboard works. Not being anywhere near as knowledgeable about Ries as Kagan is, I don’t know how many piano sonatas and sonatinas he wrote in total, and how many more discs in this cycle we can look forward to.

Ries, as is well known, was a student of Beethoven—in piano, not composition—served for a time as the master’s amanuensis, and was one of Beethoven’s early biographers. Still, he managed a successful concert career as a pianist, wrote nine piano concertos of his own, and a quite respectable volume of music, including eight symphonies, more than two dozen string quartets, and other chamber works. Perhaps more than any of his other efforts, his oratorio, Die Könige in Israel, has had a fair degree of staying power.

Like many composer/virtuoso performers of the time, however, Ries fell into that narrow gap, musically speaking, between Beethoven/Schubert and Mendelssohn/Chopin, or in what you might call the transitional phase between the end of the Classical and the onset of the full-blown Romantic periods. That would include the likes of Czerny, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Spohr, Field, Onslow, and Paganini. In her booklet notes, Kagan describes very well Ries’s “anticipation” of the romantic style and the ways in which his piano sonatas are “harbingers of the romantic style that was to flourish two decades later.”

My response to the sonatas and sonatina presented on Volume 1 was not overly enthusiastic. “Occasionally,” I wrote, “Ries offers a bold harmonic stroke, but overall my sense is of miles of busywork—lots of running passages, especially in triplets—and not a single memorable tune. The keyboard style is not unlike that which one hears in Schubert’s sonatas, but what strikes me as lacking are melodic inspiration and the kind of dramatic contrasts that create alternating states of emotional tension and repose. Good, solid musical ideas aplenty fly by, which one senses would be made something significant of by a more gifted muse; but in Ries’s hands tuition never quite seems to achieve fruition.” That conclusion in no way, however, faulted Kagan’s playing, which I found to be “flawless in terms of keyboard dexterity and in terms of making sense of some of Ries’s quirky figurations and mercurial shifts of gears.”

My reaction to the sonatas on the current volume remains unchanged. We’re dealing here with something less than great music. Its main weakness, in my opinion, lies in an area seldom discussed in music criticism, and that is the art of continuation. A melody, theme, or motive occurs to a composer and he writes it down. In itself the idea may be lovely, even memorable; but then comes the real test. What comes next, how to go on?

The greatest composers seemed intuitively to know how to extend an idea or to counter it with another in a way that sounds natural and right, as if it could not have been otherwise. Take, for example, Schubert, whose piano sonatas Ries’s somewhat resemble in a superficial way. Within the first 30 seconds of Ries’s C-Major Sonata, he presents an attractive enough idea and introduces some Schubert-like shifts into the underlying harmony, one at the 24-second mark that is quite striking. But then, at the 31-second mark, he comes to a dead stop and begins anew with a figure that sounds like the beginning of Beethoven’s Für Elise. There’s little logic to what happens for the next 15 seconds, until he returns to his opening statement at the 45-second mark.

It’s not that any of it sounds bad; rather, it’s that we’re not gripped by the sense of an unfolding drama that takes us on an emotionally charged and psychologically satisfying journey. Contrast this to the first 45 seconds of Schubert’s great B♭-Major Sonata, where the opening theme is not only harmonically undermined a number of times, but is not even presented as a complete statement, so that its true identity is concealed until the very end of the movement. Isn’t that the hymn tune Adeste Fidelis at its core; and isn’t that why we experience such a catharsis when we hear it at the end? Ries is to Schubert as Salieri was to Mozart; some are simply not summoned to such an exalted calling.

This does not mean that there is not much to take pleasure in here. The F♯-Minor Sonata borrows much from Beethoven. Listen to the “Waldstein”-like drumming bass in the left hand and the “Appasionata”-like roulade of rapid repeated notes at 1:10. Kagan calls attention to the sonata’s “Pathétique” similarities as well. Was Ries wallowing in self-pity when he titled the work “L’Infortunée” (“the unfortunate” or “ill-fated”)? He wrote the work during his time in Paris, and he was disappointed and not a little angry when the French didn’t express much enthusiasm for his music.

Truly one of the funniest essays I’ve come across on Ries was written by a Dr. David C. F. Wright, a psychologist by profession. The article is accessible at Wright recounts the story, possibly true, that as a citizen of Bonn, Ries was subject to conscription in the French army, and was summoned to Paris in 1805, a journey of some 650 miles it is believed he made on foot. Perhaps that, or the fact that the army decided he was unfit for duty once he got there because he had only one eye (he lost the other one in a bout with smallpox as a child) was the reason he saw himself, in monocular vision of course, as “l’infortunée.” Couldn’t he have sent this information to the conscription office before making the trip? I mean, logic would have to tell you that someone with only one eye can’t shoot worth a damn; there’s a lack of depth perception.

If Wright had stopped after he said, “There is a lot of rubbish written about composers and their music and others perpetuate it by repetition; for example, Michael Kennedy writes that Salieri was hostile to Mozart and there is the other apocryphal story that Salieri poisoned Mozart,” no one would question his credentials as either an amateur music historian or professional psychologist. But when he says, “This has done Salieri’s reputation no good and, while I adore much Mozart, Salieri is a finer composer and far more original” [my italics], I would have to question his judgment in both fields of endeavor. One has to wonder what Wright means when he says “Ries had his eyes set on Russia.” Don’t you just love this stuff? Kagan is smiling too, like a Cheshire cat, in her booklet photograph. She must have as wicked a sense of humor as I do.

Ries’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he arrived in London in 1813. It was here that he wrote his one-movement fantasy work The Dream. It has no program, but its multisectional form does suggest, according to Kagan, a “programmatic narrative.” If Beethoven and Schubert were Ries’s models for the earlier sonatas, the keyboard style of The Dream clearly stands at the threshold to Chopin.

Kagan’s playing continues to be exceptional. She serves up Ries in a most pleasing and palatable way. And though I’ve yet to hear one of these works that I would care to take with me to the other side, while I’m still on this side, I shall enjoy, in Colin Clarke’s words, the affection she lavishes on these works, in the process elevating their stature. Ries could not have asked for a better pianist and proponent than he has found in Susan Kagan. Definitely recommended.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, November 2010

Susan Kagan's fine traversal of the piano music of Ferdinand Ries continues with the C Major Sonata, Op. 9, No. 2, the F# Minor Sonata, Op. 26 (L'Infortunée) and a 19-minute tone poem for piano, The Dream, Op. 49. The music on this disc is very solid, in parts, inspired. Ries learned from his teacher, Beethoven, how to construct a sonata. His piano writing contains some lovely melodic ideas and embellishments that suggest the future, such as those found in Mendelssohn or Chopin. Op. 9, No. 2 is perfectly balanced; in Op. 26, the finale, over 14 minutes, seems too long compared to the two movements that preceded it. Op. 49 is not a sonata; it is not particularly atmospheric in the sense of "dreaminess," and contains much music suggesting military fanfares. It was written right after he established himself in London in 1813, to acquaint English audiences with his playing. Although not as tuneful as his teacher's "Wellington's Victory," also written in 1813, it was a great hit. Kagan plays this music with keen understanding.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

When Ferdinand Ries arrived in London in 1813, he found such a dearth of quality musicians that he was soon installed as England’s foremost pianist-composer. Such were the demands for his performances and music, and such was his income as to enable him to retire at the age of 40, taking his English wife to live in his native Rhineland. He had been a pupil of Beethoven, his mentor having been taught by his father, Franz Anton Ries, and there is much of Beethoven in his Piano Sonatas. They formed part of an extensive catalogue of music in a style that influenced much that followed from Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Though a virtuoso performer, there is not a great deal in these two sonatas that offers an outgoing show of technical brilliance. The opus 9 sonata, composed four years before his arrival in London, made special by the whirlwind final perpetuum mobile with the weight and insistent rhythm we find in Beethoven. The opus numbers are not in order of composition, number 26 coming from the previous year, its subtitle, L’infortunee, not directed at the music, but relates to his state of mind during an unhappy period in Paris. The big heavyweight finale is pure Beethoven, and that alone should find the work in the piano repertoire. The Dream was Ries’s ‘visiting card’ written soon after his arrival in London. Full of charming filigree, it is meant to please. The much experienced American pianist, Susan Kagan, gives very honest performances, never taking self-indulgent liberties, and creating a real ‘head of steam’ in the finale of L’infortunee. You do hear pedal action in this close recording, but it has plenty of impact and is of a pleasing quality

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