Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) has been described as Beethoven’s “right-hand man” – friend, pupil and secretary – and during his relatively short life (dead aged fifty-three) he was recognised as a concert pianist of renown (he was a teacher of the instrument); he was also a prolific composer of Symphonies, Piano Concertos and numerous String Quartets. Much-travelled, too, including St Petersburg, Paris and London; and he found time to author reminiscences about Beethoven.
This Hyperion selection of Ries’s music for piano and orchestra is very enjoyable and reveals much skill in compositional terms. A housekeeping note: the numbers 8 and 9 are one too many, for Ries’s sole Violin Concerto was catalogued as No.1 and the subsequent eight Piano Concertos followed numerically; so, here are the final two. Stylistically, Ries may be heard as looking back to Mozart and glancing ahead to/running parallel with Chopin, and there is certainly an affiliation to Beethoven, although Ries is also his own man – his is civilised, consummate music.
The A-major Concerto (1826) is entitled ‘Greeting to the Rhine’. It opens gently, beguilingly, and although the writing (including the use of trumpets and timpani) becomes a little sterner that doesn’t prepare the listener for the piano’s bold introduction, a foretaste of varying and engaging invention, plenty of sparkle. The slow movement might be heard as a moonlit nocturne, certainly enchanting, and the Finale, almost as long as the first movement, once some pianistic gymnastics are over, is jaunty. The (also half-an-hour) G-minor Concerto (circa 1832-1833), as its key suggests, is darker, the introduction rather operatic, even a little spooky in a Freischütz sense, a restless spirit suggested, the piano-writing agitated if with contrasting shafts of light and lyricism: Ries’s music doesn’t get bogged down. The slow movement is a song-without-words – simple, affecting – and the Finale is a romp mixing a sense of theatre with skittishness. Coming between the two is the Introduction and Polonaise (Rome, 1833), solemn to begin with (excellent horn-playing) and then exuberant.
Should these works be new to you, they are well-worth discovering. Piers Lane is musically and technically superb, dynamic and affectionate, relishing the showiness, poeticism and range of Ries’s characters. The Orchestra Now (living up to its name, a twenty-first-century sound) and Leon Botstein offer stylish and personable support, and the recording quality and annotation are everything you’d expect from Hyperion.