Ferdinand Ries: A Kinder, Gentler Beethoven

Ferdinand Ries is best remembered today (if at all) as Beethoven’s personal assistant. Although he served that role well – securing performances, publication deals and more – that wasn’t originally why their paths crossed. Ries came to Beethoven in 1803 to study composition.

Like his mentor, Ries was a piano virtuoso as well as a composer. His piano concertos were written primarily for his own use, to provide material he could use in performance – a standard practice of the day for any touring virtuoso.

Naxos has released four volumes of Ries’ concerti, the most recent featuring two of these works plus a shorter fantasia for piano and orchestra. So what does Ries’ music sound like? Sort of like a kinder, gentler Beethoven.

His works have the same general structure, with some of the same harmonic turns that Beethoven favored. You’ll also hear big orchestral chords hammering away at important cadence points. But there the similarities end.

Ries is more concerned with tuneful melodies than delivering pronouncements from on high. His motifs are light and appealing. While the solo piano part is challenging technically, it’s more about taking the listener along on a thrilling melodic journey rather than fully exploring the potential of either the instrument or the motifs.

Stylistically, Ferdinand Ries straddles the late classical and early romantic era. The Introduction et Rondeau Brillant Wo54 which appears on this release is a good illustration of that. While not entirely free of Beethoven’s influence, Ries’ work seems more Schubertian in its free-form development.

Pianist Christopher Hinterhuber turns in a top-notch performance on this recording (as does Uwe Grodd and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). His playing is light and fluid — perfectly suited to this material — yet it has power when it needs to. Hinterhuber really makes the cadenzas sparkle and gives the impression that Ries’ music is actually fun to play.

An appealing collection of works for piano and orchestra!

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Volume 4
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Grodd, conductor

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