Ries: 3 Violin Sonatas / Grossman, Kagan

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Ferdinand Ries was Beethoven’s student, close friend and biographer, but until quite recently was very much one of those composers living in the shadow of his Bonn master, rather than as the gifted and prolific composer he in fact was.

American pianist, author and educator Susan Kagan has explored the music of those composers associated with Beethoven and his musical scene. In fact she has researched the music of Archduke Rudolph – Beethoven’s composition student for more than twenty years – for her Ph.D. This was subsequently published by Pendragon Press back in 1988. More recently she has almost single-handedly championed the cause of Ries’s piano music, with five CDs of his Sonatas and Sonatinas on the Naxos label.

Kagan explains: ‘Ries studied piano with Beethoven (both were natives of Bonn, Germany) and was entrusted by him with such work as making transcriptions and piano arrangements, and copying orchestral parts of Beethoven’s new works. Ries moved to England in 1813, married an Englishwoman, and had a successful career touring as a virtuoso concert pianist. At the same time he was composing prodigiously and virtually everything he wrote was published. His thorough knowledge of Beethoven’s music undoubtedly helped shape Ries’s style, but his piano sonatas, from 1809 on, show an adventurous turn toward an expressive keyboard style anticipating that of the first generation of Romantic piano composers – Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann. His gift for melody is like Schubert’s, and he is ever inventive in creating and developing beautiful themes. While his symphonies and concertos are ‘public’ works, intended for large audiences and concert halls, the piano sonatas are his most personally-expressive works, revealing an individual outlook on a genre of music cultivated by that great triumvirate of the Classical period – Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.’

Ries also composed eighteen violin sonatas, which were brought out by Bonn music-publisher, Simrock, who also published much of Beethoven’s music. On this latest release from Naxos, Kagan is joined by violinist and fellow-American Eric Grossman, in an exploration of three of Ries’s violin sonatas, two from his op. 8 set, and his op. 19, all world-première recordings. However, unlike the piano sonatas, which have been released as part of a series of volumes, by starting here with a well-chosen selection from the eighteen extant examples, it gives the record company the option of releasing further violin sonatas in the future, or just letting this present single CD speak on behalf of the other fifteen.

It is interesting that the opening movements of the Sonata in F, Op. 8 No. 1, recorded first, and the Sonata in C minor, Op. 8 No. 2 that follows, have more than just a passing acquaintance with movements by Beethoven himself. While the latter first movement is very reminiscent of the corresponding movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in the same key, Op. 10 No. 3, the F major Sonata opens in a pastoral vein, with a main theme which immediately hints at Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata for violin and piano in the same key. Rather than reinforcing the idea that Ries is merely mimicking his teacher – what follows, in both of Ries’s sonatas, after the initial ‘homage to Ludwig’, really does confirm that the younger composer has an individual voice, and subsequently embarks on quite a different musical journey from his master.

Of the violin sonatas as a whole, Kagan continues: ‘(They) are models of the Viennese Classical sonata style established by Mozart: most are in three movements, with first movements in sonata-allegro form, lyrical slow movements in ternary (ABA) form, and rondo finales. Like Mozart, Ries divides the material to provide equal interest for both instruments.’ The Sonata in F largely adheres to this pattern, though is, in fact, a four-movement work, with a sprightly Scherzo and Trio in the tonic minor (F minor) following the opening ‘Allegro ma non troppo’, before a conventional, though short slow movement, leads to the finale, with its essentially rustic theme. However, this soon contrasts with the central episode, where staccato triplets evolve into a vigorous fugato section (like a fugue, but not fully played-out), and something which, according to Kagan in her compact, yet succinct and informative sleeve-notes, is an unusual event in Ries’s music, where polyphonic writing is ‘generally avoided’.

The characteristic dotted rhythms and robust dynamics of the ‘Allegro con spirito’ that open the Sonata in C minor, imbue it initially with an almost martial character, but this soon turns lyrical, in which vein the ensuing ‘Adagio cantabile’ slow movement continues, and which also then acts as the perfect aperitif to the lightness of the closing rondo, with its staccato texture and preponderance of rapid repeated notes.

The so-named Grande Sonata in F minor, while the shortest of the three works on the CD, is nevertheless conceived in large scale, both with regards structure and content, and with its key, and the dramatic insistence of the opening movement’s main theme, link it in character to Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ piano sonata, written some five years earlier. Unlike Beethoven’s work, Ries’s sonata begins with a short and poignant ‘Largo espressivo’ introduction – not unlike the opening of Beethoven’s earlier ‘Pathétique’ sonata, but providing nowhere near as dramatic a lead-in. Ries maintains the feverish mood of the ‘Allegro agitato’ throughout, despite the occasional sections away from the over-arching minor tonality, and the movement’s calmly-understated close. The following slow movement, in a gentle triple measure, and in the relative major key (A flat major), has a simple charm and eloquence that makes it extremely endearing and pleasing on the ear, but with sufficient contrast within, to hold the listener’s attention throughout. The overall playful mood of the final rondo also has more than enough variety, both rhythmically and melodically in its main theme and episodes, to sustain it, with some real fireworks in the central episode. The music has a decidedly Schubertian feel, both thematically, and in Ries’s use of tonality, where more remote keys figure, and there is often a characteristic shift from major to minor and back. Yet again Ries chooses to finish like a lamb, rather than a lion – something Beethoven does in the opening movement of his ‘Appassionata’, but not in the work’s tumultuous and clattering coda to the finale.

Whichever way you look at this latest Ries CD from Naxos, you will surely not be disappointed. The playing, positioning and recording are first-rate, and the three pieces recorded are charming, entertaining and with a good feel for motivic development. Whether they form part of a more extended investigation into the composer’s repertoire for violin and piano, or remain just a one-off sampler, at the bargain price offered, they are simply too good to miss.

– Philip R Buttall, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8573193

  • UPC: 747313319374

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Ferdinand Ries

  • Performer: Eric Grossman, Susan Kagan