Mari Kodama & Susan Kagan: Beethoven & Ries Piano Sonatas

We put Beethoven and his pupil Ries in the spotlight as two pianists wrap their fingers around his piano Sonatas

Composer: Beethoven
Repertoire: Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3
Artists: Mari Kodama (piano)
Rating:  3/5
Genre: Instrumental
Label: Pentatone PTC 5186 067

Composer: Ries
Repertoire: Piano Sonatas, Op.1, Nos 1 & 2; Op.5, Nos 1 & 2
Artists: Susan Kagan (piano)
Rating:  3/5
Genre: Instrumental
Label: Naxos 8.570743

Beethoven’s musical domination of the first three decades of the 19th century was virtually absolute. Imagine, then, what it must have been like for his pupils, taking advice from arguably the greatest musical visionary of all time! One of the few to have actually thrived under the Master’s watchful eye was Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), a largely self-taught musician who became a close friend, confidante and important early biographer. A brilliant pianist, Ries made his public debut aged 20 playing Beethoven’s taxing Third Piano Concerto and henceforth did everything in his power to promote his hero’s music. Ries was a gifted and highly prolific composer in his own right, yet his achievement was cruelly dwarfed by the man he revered above all others. 

It is particularly fascinating to compare Beethoven’s three Op.2 piano sonatas (completed in 1795) with Ries’s early work in the field, which began appearing just over a decade later. Whereas Beethoven flouts convention at almost every turn with charismatic effrontery, Ries creates models of stylistic good behaviour, albeit with the occasional pre-Schubertian twist along the way (Schubert was only 10 at the time). 

Mari Kodama retains her golden sound and exquisite musical poise throughout even the thorniest of Beethoven’s virtuosic outbursts, suggesting more the confident young genius than the angry post-adolescent railing at tradition. Susan Kagan, by comparison, rejoices in the occasionally quirky originality in Ries’s music, its predominately sunny disposition and delightful lyrical tendency, making comparisons with Beethoven feel less one-sided than usual.