FERDINAND RIES: Piano Concerto, Op. 132 “Farewell to England”; Grand Variations on Rule Britannia, Op. 116; Introduction and Variations Brillantes, Op. 170 – Christopher Hinterhuber, piano/ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Uwe Grodd
Naxos 8.570440, 66:02 ****:
Composer Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) wrote fourteen works for piano and orchestra, and I had remained unfamiliar with all of them until I auditioned this recording. An associate of Beethoven, Ries enjoyed a concert platform career well into the 1830s. Having composed nine piano concertos, Ries inevitably suffers comparison with his more esteemed contemporary, whose influence can be felt in the flashy, martial, dotted rhythms that permeate his first offering here, the glittery 1823 Farewell to Britannia Concerto in A Major. But the harmonic functions in Ries differ decidedly in Ries, since he would rather rhapsodize than conform to any strictures about sonata-form. Cadenzas come and go, seemingly ad libitum; and the general, bombastic nature of the writing, its flamboyant fioritura, rather invites comparison with Weber’s Konzertstuck in F Minor more than with Beethoven, Hummel, Mendelssohn, or Chopin, though Ries’s rhetorical strategies borrow from them all.
The second movement, Larghetto–which opens by almost quoting verbatim Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto–becomes “bardic,” strumming the theme over soft, string chords. A march suddenly emerges, but it, too, seems derivative of Mozart’s Requiem. Once or twice, I hear other allusions to Mozart, especially the big Concerto in C, K. 503. Then, Mendelssohn kicks in, particularly the Capriccio Brillante, Op. 22. When I become impatient with Ries and the constantly intertwining runs and roulades, I glibly note that the piece seems 10% inspiration and 90% “scintillation.” The use of repeated notes in the first movement sounds like a stuttering sequence from Chopin or a Liszt Rhapsody, often in parody. A contemporary critic of 1824 wrote of Ries having composed for “the Aeolian harp.” I find the strings of that harp rather acrobatically arranged, which aligns me with Clara Schumann’s assessment of Camille Saint-Saens. The last movement, a flurried, galloping Allegro whose main, tripping tunes “borrow” from the last movements of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony and Chopin‘s E Minor Concerto, cascades along with predictable, if quirkily eclectic, panache.
The second work to mark Ries’s retirement from the London stage is his 1817 Grand Variations on ‘Rule Britannia.’ An E-flat, pomposo introduction leads to a fragment–seven notes in the horns–of the jingoistic tune, a cell that assume various characters and guises, after, of course, the keyboard has had its verbose statement–the verses of the text–if you will. Each of the succeeding tuttis–acting as a responsive chorus–is numbered in the Ries score. The model for all this I suspect is Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, Op. 80, herein diluted with ornamental peppers and paprika of a distinctly Gordian nature. Four variations behave rather placidly, given Ries’s extroverted nature; then, he begins to flex his musical muscles, changing the duple meter to a swaggering 6/8 and the tonality to A-flat. Some counterpoint ensues, rather a “learned” treatment from Ries, who thenceforth shows us he can conform–albeit playfully–to classical procedures, if he wishes. Harmonically, Ries does catch my ear with the shift for his coda; if only he would ease up on the roulades, which by now, I find a peacock’s affectation.
Well, the sun never sets over. . .Ries. His Introduction et Variations Brillantes, oh so French, sets as a long introduction and four variants the tune, “Soldier, soldier, will you marry me?” Its tripartite structure, with a long central Larghetto in A-flat Major and B Major, might just be distant antecedent for Franck’s Symphonic Variations. The dancing main air proves captivating, in a music-hall or shanty fashion, to the generous ear. The writing for flute, horns, and strings proves quite idiomatic, so let us not disparage Ries’ gifts for orchestration, keyboard facility, or stylistic variety. To wit, I grant Ries full credit for his musical mimicry of others’ styles, and concede that, were his talents in the visual arts, he might have enjoyed unqualified success as an art forger.