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ClassicsOnline Home » RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 5 (Kagan) - Opp. 114, 176, WoO 11
No less an authority than Robert Schumann praised Beethoven’s close friend and protégé Ferdinand Ries for his ‘remarkable originality’. More recently, pianist Susan Kagan, intrigued by Ries’s Op. 1 piano sonatas went on to record all 14 of his solo piano sonatas and sonatinas, gaining critical acclaim for her eloquent advocacy of these unfairly neglected yet often substantial works. Bridging the divide between the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart and the Romantic impulses of Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn, with a healthy dose of Beethoven often in evidence, Ries repays today’s listener’s attention with musical drama, fluent virtuosity and poignant lyrical charm.
Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas • 5
Ferdinand Ries is known mainly through his connection with Beethoven, as his family friend, piano pupil, and early biographer. Ries’s relationship with Beethoven began in Bonn and continued in Vienna, and later in London. Born in 1784, when Beethoven was fourteen, Ferdinand was the son of Franz Ries, violinist in the Electoral Court orchestra, who taught Beethoven the violin and befriended his family during Beethoven’s youth. Largely self-taught, Ferdinand first studied in Munich, but around 1803 he went to Vienna to study the piano with Beethoven, who sent him to the noted theorist-composer Johann Albrechtsberger for composition lessons. Ries was probably Beethoven’s closest friend during this period, carrying out all kinds of musical and secretarial tasks for him, copying parts, making transcriptions and arrangements, proof-reading and seeing to publications. Later, after years of touring as a concert pianist and short stays in Paris and Vienna, he married an Englishwoman and settled in London, where he continued to act on Beethoven’s behalf.
Ries was a gifted and prolific composer in every instrumental genre, whose works, like those of so many composers of the time, were largely overshadowed by Beethoven’s huge presence. Still, in his lifetime his music was published and widely known to the music-loving public. A brilliant pianist, Ries made his début in Vienna in 1804, playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. He toured for many years throughout Europe, including Russia, to great acclaim, and was honored with membership of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Virtually everything he composed was published, and often republished by different publishers, attesting to his popularity. Eventually he and his family left England, settling finally in Frankfurt am Main in the Rhineland, where he conducted and continued to compose until his death.
Ries began composing his piano sonatas at a time when the genre was undergoing significant changes. His models were those of the great classicists, C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, who had perfected the sonata “ideal”. Later, he was influenced by new trends in sonatas of Beethoven, Clementi, Hummel, and others. Ries was a master of the prevailing classical forms, sonata form, ABA (song) form, rondo, variations, and that mastery, as well as striking originality, can be seen in all his compositions. What is most remarkable, however, is his anticipation of the style of the great piano composers of the early Romantic period, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin, who were not yet born or still young children when he was at the peak of his piano sonata composition around 1809. Schubert’s poignant harmonic language, Mendelssohn’s expressive, sweet melodies, Chopin’s brilliant figuration, all of these features prevail in Ries’s piano writing in his sonatas, well ahead of their full flowering in the Romantic period after 1830. His last three sonatas, composed between 1823 and 1832, reflect a change to a more overtly romantic style that appealed to a changing public taste.
Robert Schumann, reviewing a work by Ries in 1835 in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, noted his “remarkable originality”. Like Schubert, he had an abundance of lyrical melodic ideas in constant flow. This is borne out in his many sonata-form movements, where the first theme, the second, and the closing theme are each distinctive, and ingeniously developed. Among significant characteristics of Ries’s style, many of which were to become hallmarks of the language of Romanticism, are dramatic dynamic contrasts, abrupt changes in tempo and mood, harmonic shifts, fluent ornate figuration, wide stretches and leaps, and radical use of the sustaining pedal to blur harmonies.
The Sonata in A, Op. 114, composed around 1823, initiates the final period of Ries’s piano sonata composition, while he was still living in London. Like many works in the key of A, its character is warm, cheerful, and serene, at least in the cantabile first movement, which consists of a lyrical two-part theme followed by three variations. A spirited Scherzo in A minor, in the form of a rondo, replaces the usual slow movement. The presto finale is also a rondo; the main (rondo) theme is a quiet little two-part moto perpetuo with a stream of running sixteenth-notes (semiquavers); the two contrasting sections are brisk and assertive.
Ries’s final piano sonata, the Sonata in A flat, Op. 176, was composed in Rome in 1832; the autograph, “presented to his estimable friend the Abate F. Santini”, is preserved in the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. In this sonata the Romantic gestures anticipated in Ries’s earlier sonatas are fully realised. The first movement has a spirit of optimism, embodied in its themes, all of which begin with an ascending, buoyant melody. The slow movement is a highly expressive dialogue between two voices, one in the treble and the other in the bass, much in the style of a vocal duet. To provide a seamless, flowing rhythm, Ries shifts the metre between 6/8 and 9/8 throughout. The third movement is a charming Ländler in the tonic key, with a trio in the tonic minor. The finale is Ries’s usual favourite, a rondo. The rondo theme itself is in two parts, a fast-moving, bouncing section in A flat minor, followed by a soaring passage in A flat major. There are two contrasting sections, the first, a chirping, light-hearted passage, the second flowing and lyrical. Like the first movement, the finale glows with a buoyant spirit.
Some mystery surrounds the date of the Sonata in B minor, WoO 11, an unpublished early work, without opus number. An inscription on the manuscript, now in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, which holds the bulk of Ries’s works, reads “Sonate pour le Piano Forte composé par Ferdinand Ries à Munich 1805”. Ries, however, was in Vienna in 1805, and in Munich in 1801. The 1801 date appears to be likelier, based on various pieces of evidence, such as the limited range of the piano in the sonata, and the extensive use of an Alberti bass accompaniment. In general, there is a clear jump in compositional technique from WoO 11 to the two sonatas of Op. 1, published in 1806. While clearly an immature work, the B minor sonata is the starting-point for the fourteen sonatas of Ries’s oeuvre, and as such has an important rôle in any survey of the sonatas. The mood of the first movement is sombre and dark, moving slowly with long pauses between phrases. The slow movement, although in the parallel major, conveys a similar mood. The third movement (the first of the many rondos in Ries’s piano sonatas) is clearly influenced by the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata in C minor, Op. 13; the similarity in themes is unmistakable. What stands out in this early work is the composer’s strong lyrical bent, and his inspired and poignant melodic writing, the traits that were to figure prominently in all the music that followed.
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