RIES Flute Quartets, op. 145: No. 1 in C; No. 2 in e; No. 3 in A • John Herrick Littlefield (fl); Aaron Boyd (vn); Ah Ling Neu (va); Yari Bond (vc) • NAXOS 8.570330 (56:33)
Naxos doesn’t claim first-recording bragging rights with this CD, but I suspect it could. I don’t see any alternative recordings in the current catalog, and anyway, flutist John Herrick Littlefield already seems to have played an important role in rescuing these three quartets fromRead more oblivion. As he relates in the booklet notes, he was scouting for new repertoire in various countries when he came across a Simrock edition of these scores in the Library of Congress—apparently the original edition, published near the end of Ries’s life. Littlefield obtained copies of the scores, edited them, and literally took them on tour in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (In the last decade, new editions have been published by Falls House Press in the United States, and Accolade Musikverlag, Holzkirchen.) It is only natural that he would record them sooner or—in this case, later, as this recording dates from 2006.
As a young man, Ries studied the piano with Beethoven and composition with Albrechtsberger, who had been Beethoven’s teacher as well. It is often remarked that Ries’s earlier works are stylistically similar to, or even imitative of, the music of Beethoven. (Beethoven himself complained of this.) Littlefield makes a good point though, by suggesting that the similarity might have less to do with the imitation of Beethoven and more to with the fact that Ries and Beethoven shared the same mentor. By the time he composed the present works, however, Ries seems to have gotten much of Beethoven (or Albrechtsberger) out of his system. No specific year of composition is given, but Littlefield refers to Ries’s “years of retirement,” so these quartets must date from 1824 (the year in which Ries turned 40) or later.
Some music requires little effort on the part of the listener to yield enjoyment, while, at the same time, not insulting his or her intelligence. That is how these three varied quartets seem to me. They were dedicated to one Charles Aders, of whom nothing is known, although Littlefield suggests that he might have been a “musically literate personality.” (To me, this suggests a sympathetic, educated amateur.) There are allusions to other works—for example, to Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet in the Larghetto cantabile of the C-Major Quartet. The Classical style of early Ries has been replaced with relaxed, early-Romantic tendencies, not unlike some of Schubert’s music. And there are surprises—for example, the finale of the aforementioned quartet, which is an Allegro all’espagnola. (What if Beethoven had composed something in a Spanish style?) In short, while most listeners probably won’t be blown out of their seats by this music, it is fairly imaginative, always charming, and certainly worth exploring for those who enjoy the sound of a flute joined by three string instruments.
These are very capable performances, although the conversation among the four musicians doesn’t always suggest deep mutual intuition. Littlefield is not unduly favored by Naxos’s engineering team, but it is his music-making to which the ears most readily gravitate. Unless an all-star ensemble tackles these works, I’d say the curious can rely on Littlefield and friends to convey what this music is all about, and to give listeners pleasure. The engineering is natural and apt.