April 16, 2009


Ries: Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 132 (“Farewell to England”); Grand Variations on “Rule Britannia,” op. 116; Introduction et Variations Brillantes, op. 170. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 4. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

     Ferdinand Ries’ “Farewell to England” concerto is more or less his seventh – the publishing sequence of his works is very confusing, and he numbered the concertos independently of what instrument they featured, so his first piano concerto is actually his Concerto No. 2. The work, however difficult it is to pin down its designation, dates to 1823 and was written when Ries, after a decade of life in London and marriage to an Englishwoman, decided to return home to Germany. As an envoi, he composed a very grand concerto whose impressive majesty comes through fully in Christopher Hinterhuber’s elegant performance. This work – the only Ries concerto to start with a slow introduction – progresses from a very large-scale first movement, which includes an extended cadenza midway through, to a slow movement of considerable delicacy and a rondo finale that gives the soloist plenty of chances for virtuosic display. This is one of the most satisfying of all Ries’ piano concertos – quite a goodbye gift to England. And the Grand Variations on “Rule Britannia” are also quite something: designed primarily as a showcase for Ries’ own virtuosity, they are very ingenious in structure (being a mixture of sonata and variation form) and particularly well-wrought in instrumentation. Ries presents the familiar British tune in multiple keys and several meters, moving from a fairly straightforward theme-and-variations approach early in this 16-minute work to a more complex blended form later on. This is a showpiece, to be sure, but it is not just a showpiece; and again, Hinterhuber’s performance – along with that of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Uwe Grodd – is highly impressive. The Introduction et Variations Brillantes is somewhat less interesting than the other works here, being simpler and structurally more straightforward than the “Rule Britannia” variations, but it is a well-made work that once again gives the soloist the opportunity to display considerable virtuosity – a challenge to which Hinterhuber adeptly rises.

     The new release in Nigel North’s collection of John Dowland’s lute music is a farewell of a different sort: it is the fourth and last of these volumes. North, essentially self-taught as a lutenist, has a remarkably fluid style that fully explores the many aspects of Dowland’s art, from the melancholic to the bright and dancelike. This fourth North CD is a bit more of a pastiche than the earlier three, with early and late Dowland works jumbled together and with little apparent order to much of the sequencing. True, some back-to-back works fit perfectly by subject matter, such as “Galliard on Walsingham” followed by “Walsingham.” And others are beautifully matched musically, such as “Awake Sweet Love” in a version by Dowland’s contemporary, Francis Cutting, followed by the same tune in a version by North himself. But many of the pieces are arranged in a somewhat helter-skelter manner. Not that this in any way detracts from how enjoyable they are: Dowland was a grand master of the lute, getting it to express innumerable varieties of emotion though works of highly varied virtuosity, and North is a superb interpreter of this repertoire. Although most of these works run two minutes or less, a few are considerably longer, with “Loth to Depart,” a six-and-a-half-minute ballad setting, especially impressive in its contrapuntal design. Dowland was England’s foremost lute master in Shakespeare’s time, and North is a remarkable re-creator of Dowland’s music 400 years later. It is a shame to have to say farewell to this series, but it is one that will give listeners many pleasurable rehearings in years to come.

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