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Colin Clarke
Fanfare, November 2011

…Susan Kagan’s ongoing Ries series for Naxos is one of that company’s finest-ever endeavors. Kagan’s playing is smart, stylish and, most importantly, she believes in this music. So much is her engagement, one feels that she lives and breathes Ries. Superb.

Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, August 2011

Beethoven’s pupil played with his own spirit of dependability

The forgotten works of Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838), well served lately by both CPO and Naxos, are of variable quality and interest, all too often justifying his friend and mentor Beethoven’s observation that “he imitates me too much”. An early edition of Grove admits that technically great as was much that Ries composed, “that indescribable something, that touch of nature, which in music as elsewhere makes the whole world kin, was wanting.”

The present two works are a case in point. The three-movement D major Sonata (1808 lasting 30 minutes) with the shadows of Beethoven in particular, Weber and Clementi falling heavily over the accomplished and often charming handling of the material fails to establish an individual voice, the counterpoint and canon in the slow movement and the expressive theme and eight variations of the last movement notwithstanding. In the likeable A flat Sonata (1826, 28’35”), Ries seems to have been studying a lot of Schubert and Hummel in the outer movements while the central Adagio is almost pastiche Beethoven.

I have not heard the three earlier volumes of Ries’s sonatas and sonatinas from Susan Kagan but here her playing is rock solid and dependable with a faint whiff of pedagogy, in a different league to the crusading spirit of Christopher Hinterhuber in Ries’s concertos (also on Naxos), and less alluring in the D major Sonata than the excellent Alexandra Oehler on CPO, where, in addition, each variation is given its own track. The finale of the Op 141 stretches Ms Kagan somewhat. Well recorded with an excellent booklet by the pianist.

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, May 2011

Susan Kagan has long specialized in composers of Beethoven’s time, particularly Archduke Rudolf and Ries. Her playing is wonderfully full of feeling. The recording and her notes are very good.

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

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, May 2011

Here’s Volume 4; there are no sonatinas in this volume, just two of the heftier sonatas (each lasts around half an hour). The first we hear is the D Major, composed in 1808 in Vienna. For the first movement, Ries pits grand ideas (in keeping with the key choice) against more gemütlich ideas. Kagan’s pearly touch is a consistent delight. The end of this movement is strangely inconclusive. Presumably the idea is to act as a bridge to the fragmentary beginning of the ensuing Tempo di menuetto ma molto moderato. This second movement is fascinating, in that it is like hearing the boundaries of classical form being pushed and fragmenting in front of one’s ears. It is multifunctional in that it acts as slow movement and minuet, but its ambition is far beyond that. Ries’s contrapuntal embroiderings are a constant source of delight. The first theme is of a distinct stumbling nature, giving it a most appealing quirkiness (thanks, no doubt, to Kagan’s handling; it is easy to imagine it just sounding clumsy). The finale begins with a deceptively simple, distinctly Schubertian theme (it is in fact a set of eight variations). Kagan brings real fantasy to the cadenza-like passage around nine minutes in.

The A♭-Sonata constitutes Ries’s penultimate effort in the genre. Again tripartite in structure, it was composed in 1826. The lovely, flowing first movement casts its eye toward Weber. Ries deliberately shades his charming music with Beethovenian overshadowings. Indeed, it is in the central Adagio con moto where Beethoven’s influence is most marked. Kagan’s cantabile is magical, and she renders the low bass figure around 1:15 superbly and characterfully. Rusticity is the order of the day for the finale (think German country dance tunes). Here Kagan’s wonderful, pearly touch (noted earlier) comes into its own, coupled with more of that lovely bass clarity. Throughout, Kagan’s pedaling is a model of taste. Textures are always clear. Credit should also go the engineers and the piano technician. The superbly toned Steinway is ably caught, as are Kagan’s myriad subtleties.

In short, this is a disc that guarantees much pleasure. May the explorations continue.

Kevin Bryan
Halesowen News, February 2011

The latest Naxos offering from pianist Susan Kagan continues her exploration of the music of German born Ferdinand Ries. This prodigious composer was a friend and pupil of Beethoven, and although fate sadly decreed that he would be condemned to live his life in the shadow of his illustrious teacher much of Ries’ music does possess an innately poetic and expressive charm. The natural empathy that Kagan felt for his work prompted her to embark on a series of recordings covering the complete cycle of fourteen Ries’ piano sonatas, and classical music lovers owe her a debt of gratitude for rescuing these attractive keyboard creations from the undeserved obscurity that they’ve been languishing in for the past two centuries or so.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, February 2011

It’s a pleasant feeling to know in advance that the recording one is about to hear will consist of well performed, good music. In this, Susan Kagan’s fourth album of Ries’ solo keyboard works, one is treated to on the one hand an early work that clearly reflects the influence of Beethoven, Ries’ teacher (Op.9), and on the other, a glimpse anticipating Chopin (Op.141)—an interesting juxtaposition that Maestra Kagan exploits to stunning advantage. Her playing flows naturally, and the piano sound is warm yet brilliant. A pleasure throughout.

MusicWeb International, January 2011

This is the fourth volume in the Naxos series of Ries’s complete Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas. Volume 1 was reviewed recently on this site. Volume 5 is in fact already available, although only as a download from the Naxos website—listed for physical release in May 2011.

Stylistically, Ries’s piano music sits somewhere between that of Hummel, Beethoven and Schubert. In a way, his early death in 1838 marked the end of an era: these four great contributors to the late-Classical/early-Romantic piano sonata had all died within eleven years of each other. Sadly for posterity, not one of them had survived even into their sixties.

Of the four, Ries’s name is probably least known—more often than not relegated to a historical footnote as piano pupil, friend, ‘agent’ and biographer of Beethoven. He is certainly the least recorded by a long chalk. Yet he is by no means a minor talent, at least as far as piano composition is concerned—he wrote prolifically for his instrument to great acclaim in his time, both by the public and his contemporaries. Nor indeed when it came to piano playing, for which he soon established himself as one of the leading performers in Europe—all the more remarkable an achievement in that he had lost an eye to a childhood illness. Indeed, by the time he came to write the A flat Sonata, he had already earned enough money from concert-giving to retire before the age of forty!

Despite its low opus number, Ries was already in his mid-twenties when he wrote the Sonata in D, and it is far from an immature work. It is the fifth of his fourteen solo sonatas, and beside the immediately apparent tributes to Beethoven, there are clear resonances of Haydn, Mozart and Clementi.

Overall, the sonata is sparkling and memorable; a substantial thirty minutes in length, yet time flies by. The second movement provides an unusual example in Ries’s piano music of prolonged counterpoint and canon, whereas the third is a set of variations on a jaunty theme, a musical form that pervades his entire corpus. The work is mercurially performed by Kagan.

After eleven years in London, where Ries not only married an Englishwoman, but consolidated both his international renown and his bank account, he returned in 1824 to his homeland in north-western Germany. There he spent the rest of his life in various local musical activities and in composition.

When he wrote the A flat Sonata in 1826, three years had passed since his last work in this genre, and it would be a further six before he composed what would be his final sonata. These other two are available on volume 5, and together with the A flat they represent a mature, Romantic phase in Ries’s sonatas. Written for a now extended keyboard, the op. 141 has an altogether grander, more emotional feel about it—looking forward to the Romantic pianism of Chopin, the Schumanns, Mendelssohn and even Brahms. Ironically, it is slightly shorter than the D major work, but melody and drama combine over and over to produce an expressive, lyrical, occasionally virtuosic and frequently beautiful whole, which Kagan plays with typical insight and ease.

Susan Kagan is one of the great authorities on Ries’s music—though musicological interest in Ries has to date been as puzzlingly low-key as the musical—and some of her knowledge she shares in a short essay on both the composer and the two sonatas in the booklet, albeit in Naxos’s standard minuscule font-size. Furthermore, Kagan has now—almost—recorded all the Ries piano sonatas for Naxos. There are actually three more, for piano four hands, which the label will, I hope, not omit from this long-overdue tribute to a worthy composer.

The works are well-recorded, though the microphones may be a trifle too close for some. The only real pity is that Naxos did not use some of the empty twenty minutes of this rather short disc to give listeners a little more of Ries’s highly original piano music—one of his 49 sets of variations or 42 rondos, perhaps!, 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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group