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Ferdinand Ries Complete Piano Sonatas & Sonatinas Volume 5
David Denton, Naxos.com May. 2011
If you wonder why Naxos are releasing the complete sonatas and sonatinas by Beethoven’s piano student, Ferdinand Ries, then sample the delights of the early B minor sonata. He was to become an active touring concert pianist who eventually found fame and fortune when living in London. The piano also dominated his compositions, the present release containing two sonatas from his mature years and an unpublished sonata that was presumably from his younger years. And it is that early B minor score that possesses a wonderful freshness and attractive thematic invention that often escaped him in later life. Indeed the vivacious Allegro agitato would have graced any early work by his mentor. That he grew increasingly assured in the development of his material comes in one of his London works, the A major sonata from around 1823. Here he starts unusually with a spacious andante cantabile, followed by an unhurried scherzo and a spinning-wheel finale. His last sonata, in A flat major, dates from 1832 was composed while in Italy. Here he moved back to a four movement format, inspiration seeming to have come from Schubert, Ries’s motivation having dried up. That does not deter the American pianist, Susan Kagan, who is making out a very good case for all of the sonatas, and one can only repeat that she has an obvious affinity and affection with Ries. The recorded sound is pleasing.
Ferdinand Ries Complete Piano Sonatas & Sonatinas Volume 4
Byzantion, MusicWeb International Jan. 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!
Ferdinand Ries Complete Piano Sonatas & Sonatinas Volume 4
Colin Clarke, MusicWeb International Mar. 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
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