December 28, 2006


Beethoven: String Trios, Volume 1: Trio in E-flat Major, op. 3; Serenade (Trio) in D Major, op. 8. Members of the Kodály Quartet: Attila Falvay, violin; János Fejérvári, viola; György Éder, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Ferdinand Ries: Complete Symphonies. Howard Griffiths conducting the Zürcher Kammerorchester. CPO. $35.99 (3 CDs + 1 SACD).

     Beethoven cast such a long shadow that it is fascinating to hear works in which he stood in the shadow of someone else.  The first volume of Naxos’ planned set of all Beethoven’s string trios begins with the composer’s op. 3, which is very clearly modeled on Mozart’s only string trio, known as the Divertimento, K563.  Mozart’s sublime work is one of his monumental achievements – how he attained such depth and reached such heights with only three instruments is another of Mozart’s many miracles.  Beethoven’s work, in contrast, is light and bright and pleasant, but altogether inconsequential.  Attila Falvay, János Fejérvári and György Éder play it well, with considerable verve, but this work barely hints at Beethoven’s later capabilities.  The op. 8 Serenade, though, provides stronger indications.  The last three of its six movements are particularly interesting: one starts as an Adagio, turns into a Scherzo, then back to an Adagio, then a Scherzo again; one is a thematically intriguing and altogether ingratiating Allegretto alla Polacca; and the finale – twice the length of any other movement in this work – is a theme and variations that ends with a spirited march.  Again, the members of the Kodály Quartet play spiritedly and do not attempt to give the Serenade more gravity than it possesses – but they bring out what it does have, and there turns out to be a fair amount there.

     There is more than a fair amount of musical value in the eight symphonies of Ferdinand Ries, but Ries, born in 1784, has the misfortune to be forever associated with and vastly overshadowed by Beethoven, with whom he studied for a time and whose secretary he became in the early 1800s.  Ries was frank in his admiration for Beethoven, about whom he co-wrote a set of reminiscences, and his music shows it in two ways.  First, there are almost direct quotations from some Beethoven symphonies in some by Ries, plus some modulations and instrumental uses that were clearly inspired by Beethoven even if not copied directly from him.  Second, Ries repeatedly and unsuccessfully strove to move beyond the trails that Beethoven blazed – the Ries symphonies’ finales, in particular, tend to be a neither-here-nor-there blend of sonata and rondo forms, as if Ries knew he needed something different but was not quite sure what it should be or how to create it.

     Nevertheless, the neglect of Ries’ well-wrought symphonies is unfair – as history is so often unfair to the merely talented when there are towering geniuses in the same field living at the same time.  Ries’ eight works have a compositional order as confused as the order of Antonín Dvořák’s used to be until it was standardized.  To hear the Ries symphonies in the order in which they were written, you listen to No. 1, then No. 5, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 8 (one of two that were never published), No. 6, and No. 7 (the other that was never published).  This is easy to do with the new CPO set, which has two symphonies per disc, but the listening is not entirely straightforward, since these are four separate releases enclosed in a paper sleeve rather than a single integrated release.  Sound quality varies, booklet notes are sometimes repetitious and sometimes hard to follow, and the fourth disc (of symphonies 7 and 8) is not a standard CD but a Super Audio CD (SACD) – which, for some reason, has the most incoherent accompanying notes and even gets Ries’ dates wrong.

     It is worth getting past these presentation peculiarities, because Ries had some interesting and clever things to say in his music.  Beethoven’s “Eroica” clearly was a major influence: Ries wrote two symphonies in the same key (E-flat Major); liked to use hammering chords reminiscent of those in the “Eroica” to make some of his points; and even wrote a “March funèbre” as the slow movement of one symphony (No. 1, in D major).  Entirely on his own, Ries created numerous felicitous tunes and some especially impressive Menuetto or Scherzo movements (he used each designation four times).  Each of the Ries symphonies is in the half-hour range – he never sought to scale the heights through length – with three in minor keys and five in major; four with slow introductions to the first movement and four without; and an increasing mastery of instrumentation and orchestral color evident as the series progresses from No. 1 of 1809 to No. 7 of 1835.  Ries’ star never shone very brightly, and was already eclipsed by the time of his death in 1838.  But he is a better symphonist than most audiences have ever had a chance to know.  Howard Griffiths leads the Zürcher Kammerorchester with great style, and this small group sounds far fuller than its size would indicate as it brings real weight (if not weightiness) to a composer who deserves to be more widely heard.

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