LEBRECHT LISTENING | The Nash Ensemble proves that Ferdinand Ries is more than a forgettable oddity

Ferdinand Ries by artist Carl Mayer, before 1830 (Public domain)

Ferdinand Ries: Trio with piano and sextets (Hyperion)

★★★★★

🎧 Presto

In writing a book on Beethoven (to be published next year), I recoiled from many pupils, acolytes, secretaries, amanuenses, selfish musicians and all sorts of parasites who lived off their bond with the great man and published reminiscences of him, many of which were invented. A singular exception was Ferdinand Ries, a young man from Beethoven’s hometown who grew up in the Bonn court orchestra and shared some of the same teachers. Ries, as far as I know, never made up stories about Beethoven or made him anything other than he was – a hulking genius with a terrible temper.

Beethoven once ordered Ries to write a cadenza for a piano concerto, then tore it up moments before his pupil was due to perform it in concert. Being Beethoven’s assistant was a thankless task. Ries resisted until 1805 when the French army reached Vienna. He returned to Bonn and eventually found himself in London, where he helped found the Philharmonic Society. He was a tireless composer of ephemeral works. If these sextets are to be believed, he was a composer of limited originality with an occasional ability to delight.

The great 1817 sextet begins as a paraphrase on a Beethoven piano concerto before morphing into a positively delirious set of piano variations on the Irish ballad, The last rose of summer. There are affinities here with Beethoven’s arrangements of British folksongs, but Ries’ invention is freer than Beethoven’s, and less formulaic, an altogether unadulterated pleasure.

The second sextet, in G minor, is darker and somewhat heavier, although Ries does not offer much depth; the best it manages is a clarinet doodle in homage to Mozart’s late concerto. The trio is frankly an imitation of Beethoven, who came to resent Ries’ near-plagiarism. Ries retired to Frankfurt in 1824 but continued to compose until 1838, leaving behind seven symphonies, nine concertos and three operas. Not a major composer, perhaps, but certainly more than a forgettable oddity.

These performances clearly brought great pleasure to the members of the Nash Ensemble, including violinist Stephanie Gonley, violist Lawrence Power, clarinetist Richard Hosford and cellist Adrian Brendel. The two pianists — Benjamin Frith and Simon Crawford-Phillips — lead the dance with an enthusiasm bordering on recklessness. It makes you wonder if this is the kind of joy that music aroused at the informal 1820s gatherings of the Philharmonic Society of London.

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