Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: in f,
Sonatina in a,
Susan Kagan (pn)
NAXOS 8.570796 (50:02)
By all rights, Susan Kagan should be reviewing this CD; but then that would pose a serious conflict of interest, given that she is the performing artist. Nonetheless, if you haven’t already done so, I would urge you to read Peter J. Rabinowitz’s
interview with Susan in 32:1; for she has become not only a champion of Ferdinand Ries but also a foremost authority on his music; and for the Naxos label she has embarked on a project to record the composer’s complete keyboard
. This is Volume 1.
Ries (1784–1838) is often unfairly judged as little more than Beethoven’s amanuensis and gofer. In exchange, Beethoven gave him piano lessons, but refused to teach him composition, a refusal Beethoven extended to all his students. It has also been suggested that in the IQ department Ries may not have been the brightest button in the sewing kit. Yet for all the charges that his relationship with Beethoven stifled his own creativity and independence, Ries established himself as a successful concertizing pianist, appeared regularly in Salomen’s Philharmonic concert series during his years in London, and wrote nine piano concertos, eight symphonies, and a considerable volume of chamber music, including over two-dozen string quartets. Late in life, (1837) living with his wife in Germany, he was commissioned to write a large oratorio,
Die Könige in Israel
, which, more than any other of his works at least assured him passing mention in the music history texts.
Like many of the early Romantics—Moscheles, Hummel, Kuhlau, John Field, Kalkbrenner, Wölfl, and countless others—Ries was an offspring of the genetic struggle for influence and dominance between father—Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven—and mother—Weber-Mendelssohn-Chopin; and, like Schubert, he was caught right in the middle of it. It is hardly surprising then that Ries’s works should exhibit certain bipolar characteristics.
Admittedly, I am more familiar with Ries from his chamber music—a recording of his piano quartets on cpo made my 2003 Want List—and from his symphonies than I am from his solo keyboard works. (It surprises me that Howard Shelley has not taken up Ries’s piano concertos for Hyperion’s “Romantic Piano” series.) So, as one uninitiated into this world of which Susan Kagan has spoken so eloquently, I can only offer my first impressions which, absent Kagan’s intensive study and understanding, can be only superficial at best.
If it sounds like I’m dissembling in order to delay delivering a less than enthusiastic opinion, you’re right. These piano sonatas and sonatina, to my unfamiliar ear, had very little to say to me. Occasionally, Ries offers a bold harmonic stroke, but overall my sense is of miles of busy work—lots of running passages, especially in triplets—and not a single memorable tune. The keyboard style is not unlike that which one hears in Schubert’s sonatas, but what strikes me as lacking are melodic inspiration and the kind of dramatic contrasts that create alternating states of emotional tension and repose. Good, solid musical ideas aplenty fly by, which one senses would be made something significant of by a more gifted muse; but in Ries’s hands tuition never quite seems to achieve fruition.
This is my response to the music, which is purely personal and attributable to matters of taste. It is not my response to Kagan’s playing which, at every turn, reveals her dedication and commitment to this body of neglected work. These are not technically easy pieces to play, either in terms of pure keyboard dexterity or in terms of making sense of some of Ries’s quirky figurations and mercurial shifts of gears; yet Kagan navigates them flawlessly. I am equally certain that interpretively she makes as strong a case for Ries as possible.
I’m all for exploring the tributaries of music history, especially those that run parallel to the 19th-century Romantic mainstream, even if not every one of them floats my boat. Kagan and Naxos are both to be commended for undertaking this project, and it is to be hoped that they will be repaid by a renewed interest in a composer whose music deserves to be heard.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Sonatina for Piano, Op. 45 by Ferdinand Ries
Susan Kagan (Piano)
Sonatas for Piano (2), Op. 11: no 1 in E flat major by Ferdinand Ries
Susan Kagan (Piano)
Sonatas for Piano (2), Op. 11: no 2 in F minor by Ferdinand Ries
Susan Kagan (Piano)
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 11, No. 2: I. Largo con espressione - Allegro agitato
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 11, No. 2: II. Larghetto
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 11, No. 2: III. Allegro
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 11, No. 1: I. Allegro moderato
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 11, No. 1: II. Andante
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 11, No. 1: III. Theme and 6 Variations: Allegretto moderato
Piano Sonata in A minor, Op. 45: I. Allegro moderato
Piano Sonata in A minor, Op. 45: II. Allegretto scherzando
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