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Ferdinand Ries: Piano Sonatas & Sonatinas, Vol. 3 / Susan Kagan

Ries / Kagan
Release Date: 07/27/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572204   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ferdinand Ries
Performer:  Susan Kagan
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RIES Piano Sonatas: in C, op. 9/2; in f?, op. 26, “L’Infortuneé.” The Dream, op. 49 Susan Kagan (pn) NAXOS 8572204 (64:07)

Fanfare’s own Susan Kagan has been performing a real service on behalf of Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838). This is her third volume dedicated to the composer’s piano sonatas and sonatinas. I was Read more privileged to review Volume 1 in Fanfare 32:3; Colin Clarke reviewed Volume 2 in 32:5; and here Volume 3 falls once again to me. Kagan, who is not only a highly accomplished pianist but also a distinguished musicologist who has written her own booklet notes and co-edited some of this music with Allan Badley, has surely become today’s leading advocate for and exponent of Ries’s keyboard works. Not being anywhere near as knowledgeable about Ries as Kagan is, I don’t know how many piano sonatas and sonatinas he wrote in total, and how many more discs in this cycle we can look forward to.

Ries, as is well known, was a student of Beethoven—in piano, not composition—served for a time as the master’s amanuensis, and was one of Beethoven’s early biographers. Still, he managed a successful concert career as a pianist, wrote nine piano concertos of his own, and a quite respectable volume of music, including eight symphonies, more than two dozen string quartets, and other chamber works. Perhaps more than any of his other efforts, his oratorio, Die Könige in Israel , has had a fair degree of staying power.

Like many composer/virtuoso performers of the time, however, Ries fell into that narrow gap, musically speaking, between Beethoven/Schubert and Mendelssohn/Chopin, or in what you might call the transitional phase between the end of the Classical and the onset of the full-blown Romantic periods. That would include the likes of Czerny, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Spohr, Field, Onslow, and Paganini. In her booklet notes, Kagan describes very well Ries’s “anticipation” of the romantic style and the ways in which his piano sonatas are “harbingers of the romantic style that was to flourish two decades later.”

My response to the sonatas and sonatina presented on Volume 1 was not overly enthusiastic. “Occasionally,” I wrote, “Ries offers a bold harmonic stroke, but overall my sense is of miles of busywork—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.” That conclusion in no way, however, faulted Kagan’s playing, which I found to be “flawless in terms of keyboard dexterity and in terms of making sense of some of Ries’s quirky figurations and mercurial shifts of gears.”

My reaction to the sonatas on the current volume remains unchanged. We’re dealing here with something less than great music. Its main weakness, in my opinion, lies in an area seldom discussed in music criticism, and that is the art of continuation. A melody, theme, or motive occurs to a composer and he writes it down. In itself the idea may be lovely, even memorable; but then comes the real test. What comes next, how to go on?

The greatest composers seemed intuitively to know how to extend an idea or to counter it with another in a way that sounds natural and right, as if it could not have been otherwise. Take, for example, Schubert, whose piano sonatas Ries’s somewhat resemble in a superficial way. Within the first 30 seconds of Ries’s C-Major Sonata, he presents an attractive enough idea and introduces some Schubert-like shifts into the underlying harmony, one at the 24-second mark that is quite striking. But then, at the 31-second mark, he comes to a dead stop and begins anew with a figure that sounds like the beginning of Beethoven’s Für Elise . There’s little logic to what happens for the next 15 seconds, until he returns to his opening statement at the 45-second mark.

It’s not that any of it sounds bad; rather, it’s that we’re not gripped by the sense of an unfolding drama that takes us on an emotionally charged and psychologically satisfying journey. Contrast this to the first 45 seconds of Schubert’s great B?-Major Sonata, where the opening theme is not only harmonically undermined a number of times, but is not even presented as a complete statement, so that its true identity is concealed until the very end of the movement. Isn’t that the hymn tune Adeste Fidelis at its core; and isn’t that why we experience such a catharsis when we hear it at the end? Ries is to Schubert as Salieri was to Mozart; some are simply not summoned to such an exalted calling.

This does not mean that there is not much to take pleasure in here. The F?-Minor Sonata borrows much from Beethoven. Listen to the “Waldstein”-like drumming bass in the left hand and the “Appasionata”-like roulade of rapid repeated notes at 1:10. Kagan calls attention to the sonata’s “Pathétique” similarities as well. Was Ries wallowing in self-pity when he titled the work “L’Infortunée” (“the unfortunate” or “ill-fated”)? He wrote the work during his time in Paris, and he was disappointed and not a little angry when the French didn’t express much enthusiasm for his music.

Truly one of the funniest essays I’ve come across on Ries was written by a Dr. David C. F. Wright, a psychologist by profession. The article is accessible at musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Nov03/Ries_Wright.htm. Wright recounts the story, possibly true, that as a citizen of Bonn, Ries was subject to conscription in the French army, and was summoned to Paris in 1805, a journey of some 650 miles it is believed he made on foot. Perhaps that, or the fact that the army decided he was unfit for duty once he got there because he had only one eye (he lost the other one in a bout with smallpox as a child) was the reason he saw himself, in monocular vision of course, as “l’infortunée.” Couldn’t he have sent this information to the conscription office before making the trip? I mean, logic would have to tell you that someone with only one eye can’t shoot worth a damn; there’s a lack of depth perception.

If Wright had stopped after he said, “There is a lot of rubbish written about composers and their music and others perpetuate it by repetition; for example, Michael Kennedy writes that Salieri was hostile to Mozart and there is the other apocryphal story that Salieri poisoned Mozart,” no one would question his credentials as either an amateur music historian or professional psychologist. But when he says, “This has done Salieri’s reputation no good and, while I adore much Mozart, Salieri is a finer composer and far more original ” [my italics], I would have to question his judgment in both fields of endeavor. One has to wonder what Wright means when he says “Ries had his eyes set on Russia.” Don’t you just love this stuff? Kagan is smiling too, like a Cheshire cat, in her booklet photograph. She must have as wicked a sense of humor as I do.

Ries’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he arrived in London in 1813. It was here that he wrote his one-movement fantasy work The Dream . It has no program, but its multisectional form does suggest, according to Kagan, a “programmatic narrative.” If Beethoven and Schubert were Ries’s models for the earlier sonatas, the keyboard style of The Dream clearly stands at the threshold to Chopin.

Kagan’s playing continues to be exceptional. She serves up Ries in a most pleasing and palatable way. And though I’ve yet to hear one of these works that I would care to take with me to the other side, while I’m still on this side, I shall enjoy, in Colin Clarke’s words, the affection she lavishes on these works, in the process elevating their stature. Ries could not have asked for a better pianist and proponent than he has found in Susan Kagan. Definitely recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano in C major, Op. 9 no 2 by Ferdinand Ries
Performer:  Susan Kagan (Piano)
Sonata for Piano, Op. 26 "L'infortunée" by Ferdinand Ries
Performer:  Susan Kagan (Piano)
Period: Romantic 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Much improved June 21, 2012 By William Roell (Bel Air, MD) See All My Reviews "After hearing the first two volumes I wrote Susan and congratulated her. What I did not say was that I found the playing timid and indifferent. Ries's sonatas sound - they still sound to me - as if they were not from the same composer who wrote the piano concerti and various other piano-orchestral works. Which are big and bold.

At the time this was not a fair review, because at the time Kagan had already recorded vols. 3, 4 and 5, which I had not heard. Based on the two volumes I had heard, I put off getting 3, 4 and 5 (Susan promised to send me copies, but that never quite happened). It was not until I heard The Dream on the radio and found it intriguing and was then surprised to find it was by Ries, that I got the remaining three volumes.

Which were a revelation! It can be really quite hard to puzzle out a strange composer, from scratch. Especially one whom we "think" we "should know" so very well. Ries is supposed to sound like Beethoven, but in the sonatas he sounds nothing like Beethoven. So does he sound like Chopin? Or Schumann? Or Mendelssohn? Or none of the above? Whatever it is, Ries's style was widely known in his own day, but had been completely lost by ours. The mere notes on a page do not tell us anything.

This is what Susan Kagan has done. She has laboriously, painstakingly, reconstructed the rudiments of Ferdinand Ries's piano style. Elsewhere I read that Susan's playing on the first two albums had a "pearly" touch. (Which I found maddening.) In the final three albums, that's gone. Susan has mastered the music. She tells me she is about to record the three (I think) piano-four hands sonatas. I look forward to hearing them. (As well as Ries's violin-piano sonatas, which Susan has hinted at.)

Which led me to discover that Ries wrote an extensive portfolio of piano-four hands music, many of them arrangements of popular tunes of the day. As I believe he met and fell in love with his wife, Harriet Mangeon, while seated next to her at the piano, I would very much like to hear these arrangements. There are all manner of "slippery" things that happen when two players are seated next to each other. Professional radio announcers will know at what I am hinting.

One other note, on Ries's personal style. The last sonata on the 5th and final volume of sonatas is the Sonata in b, WoO 11. According to Susan's notes, this was composed in Munich in 1801 and if so, predates Ries's meeting with Beethoven by more than a year. It is stylistically similar to Ries's later music, which then begs the question: Was Ries influenced by Beethoven at all? Was Ries's style wholly original, or was it "in the air"? If Ries's style was generic, then how much of Beethoven's was the same? Could both men have had a Rhenish, or even "Bonn-centered" style? They both grew up in Bonn, only 14 years apart, and up to 1794, when Ries was 10, Bonn had its own court orchestra. (I caution that this is a very dangerous question.)

We know that Ries "borrowed" from Beethoven, though what is not so well known is that Beethoven "borrowed" from Ries (first movement, Op. 109, as well as, I suspect, most of the Diabelli variations, as well as the Turkish music in the 9th, from the finale of Ries's brand-new 6th symphony, and quite possibly the opening set of the 14th string quartet, which Beethoven himself said he had borrowed). There is no sin in this. Ries's music was widely copied while he was still alive, as you may hear in Schubert's Erlkönig, which has a riff that was taken from one of the sonatas in Kagan's first album. Elsewhere, Tchaikovsky's triumphal march is borrowed from that of Ries, the opening theme of Bruckner's 5th symphony was taken, note for note, from his Robber Bride overture. Ries's anti-climax in the Swedish Variations was widely copied, most notably by Saint Saens, in the finale of his 2nd, 3rd or 4th piano concerti (forgive me that I can't remember exactly).

The world is a more colorful place when we discover all the amazing cross-currents. With the rediscovery of Ferdinand Ries, we have found one of the major creative forces in the 19th century. And we've only just started.

My thanks to Archiv for asking for my participation. I run a mail-order bookstore and when I could not get the books I wanted, I reprinted them. Naxos has its own interests and its own schedule. Arkiv could well leap into this and record and release its own albums, if it is not doing so already. "
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