Ferdinand Ries was just one among many once-famous and significant composers who had the misfortune of occupying the same chronological space as Ludwig van Beethoven. The personal association between Ries and Beethoven was particularly close; he was also born in Bonn and Ries' father was one of Beethoven's music teachers. A child prodigy, Ries' election to the court orchestra in Bonn at age 11 was interrupted by the French Revolution, and after a number of years spent in poverty he caught up with Beethoven in Vienna, becoming a valuable copyist for him and a handler of Beethoven's affairs. Apart from a stint conscripted in the French Army and its immediate aftermath, Ries continued in this role off and on until his retirement from music in about 1825. Ries came out of retirement to lead the Singakademie in Aachen just a few years before he died in 1838. Ries was by all accounts a brilliant pianist, and at one time his fame spread from London to Moscow.
Artaria Editions, the Hong Kong-based publishing house that has done so much to provide exposure to worthy eighteenth and early nineteenth century music, has turned its attention to Ries, who needs it -- his enormous backlog of scores, being a motley mix of publications and manuscript sources, are literally scattered to the four winds, their proper chronology difficult to establish. The Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 55, here survives only in a tattered and incompletely filled in manuscript at the Swedish Royal Academy. It and the Swedish National Airs with Variations, Op. 52, were likely written to fulfill the requirements of a successful bid for nomination to a membership to the Academy, a distinction once accorded to Haydn. The manuscript of the Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 174, however, comes from a source located at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The Introduction and Polonaise seems the least successful of the three; while it is a charming work and an eminently pleasurable listen, it lacks the power and intensity of the two Swedish works. These were begun in Russia in 1812 under terrible conditions; with the French invading and his appointment to the Swedish Academy pending, Ries attempted to flee by ship. His ship was intercepted by a small English vessel, and Ries was obliged to spend eight days as a prisoner "detained...on a small rock." The concerto in particular captures the turbulence of such events; in general, it can be said that Ries' concerted piano music is similar to Beethoven's mainly in his approach to passagework and other ornamental effects, but his touch is somewhat lighter and orchestration less dense. Ries retains some of the textures of late eighteenth century orchestral practice while his solo part is clearly oriented toward the more adventurous spirit of early Romanticism, perhaps best exemplified by Beethoven in 1812, but apparently not exclusive to him. The Swedish National Airs with Variations is a very thrilling and original-sounding piece; it must have really pricked up the ears of the members of the Swedish Academy.
On Naxos' Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2, the first recordings of any of this literature in the new Artaria editions by Allan Badley, pianist Christopher Hinterhuber is clearly excited by the prospect of bringing this familiar-sounding, yet "new" historical music to the public and jumps into the job with a considerable amount of gusto. The Gävle Symphony Orchestra likewise was a good choice for these premiere recordings owing to the works' close association to Sweden; this may well have spurred it onto the inspired performances heard here. With adulation for Beethoven running at an all-time high in 2007 and every one of his compositions available on disc in multiple versions, perhaps it is not a bad idea to give this "other" Bonn master a try.