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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1838)
Sextet in G minor, op.142 (1814) [22:52]
String Trio in E minor, WoO 70/2 (?) [25:41]
Octet in A-flat major, op.128 (1816) [21:37]
Franz Ensemble
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 903 2136-6 SACD [70:10]

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Beethoven’s student, Ferdinand Ries, who had a long and distinguished composing and performing career of his own, much of it in Britain. We recently reviewed a set of his cello compositions, and his violin sonatas and string quartets have also been rediscovered and recorded to acclaim. Now we turn to some of his chamber works, and the same high quality is to be found here.

The Sextet in G minor, op.142, for harp, piano, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and double bass, opens the disc with a bang. The first edition presented this as a duo for piano and harp, with the accompaniment of the other four instruments. That’s probably a better way to think of the composition, because it does indeed focus on those two instruments and their interplay. The first movement Allegro ma non troppo offers a haunting melody, while the slow second movement presents an incredibly lush soundscape. The finale is a charming folk dance-like piece, with the interwoven piano and harp bringing the whole to a rousing finish.

It’s unknown when the String Trio in E minor was composed. It has elements of Haydn but also occasional features from later, so it may have been a juvenile composition that was reworked years or even decades later. In any event, Beethoven-like contrasts of sudden fortes in the midst of a pianissimo quiet are found throughout. The first movement makes clever use of syncopation, and for the most part all three strings are very active participants. The second movement is a brief and somber minuet in E mnor, once again exploring extreme volume contrasts, as is the case with the succeeding Andante più Allegretto. The end of that movement is particularly gorgeous, and the Trio is rounded out by a rousing 6/8 jig.

The Octet in A-flat major, for piano, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, seems almost like a chamber piano concerto. The piano takes the central role at all times and is seldom subordinate. The balance between the relative parts is excellent, part of which I attribute to Ries’ intelligent writing, and part of which I credit to the sensitive performance by the Franz Ensemble. I particularly liked the dreamlike second movement, with moments of nightmarish unease creeping into the foreground now and then.

This hybrid SACD sounds marvelous. Dynamic contrasts are hugely important in these compositions (especially the String Trio), and they come across exceedingly well. With headphones, there are some striking stereo effects and the performers are clearly placed in the soundstage. The sound is very natural, and the String Trio again comes out well through the immediacy and transparency of the audio.

I was quite pleased with the performances by the Franz Ensemble, especially in getting the difficult balance between the piano and the harp just right in the Sextet. The horn, when present, is prominent and rock steady, which I always appreciate. The Franz Ensemble carefully observes each and every repeat indicated by the composer.

Mark S. Zimmer

Previous review: Chris Ramsden

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