Monday, October 10, 2016

Michael Tsalka's recording of solo works of Ferdinand Ries on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo: David Beecroft)

With today’s rising interest in music of the transitionary period between Viennese Classicism and Romanticism, the name of Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) comes to the fore and not just in the capacity of his job as Beethoven’s secretary, copyist, transcriber, arranger and proof-reader.  It is true that Ries’ father sent him to Vienna, where Beethoven took him under his wing, teaching him the piano, with Ries, in turn, helping Beethoven with the technicalities of composing, publishing and finding living quarters (it was he who found Beethoven the lodgings in the Pasqualati House, now housing the Beethoven museum), assisting him more as his hearing failed. Ries came from a long line of Bonn musicians employed at the court of the Elector of Cologne in Bonn, he himself becoming a fine performing pianist and prolific composer. He was also a renowned interpreter of Beethoven’s music; together with Franz Wegeler he published a collection of reminiscences of Beethoven in 1838. Not a church musician, Ferdinand Ries’ oeuvre covers all other genres written at the time.

A performer on historic keyboard instruments and the modern piano, Michael Tsalka has chosen to record “Romantic Variations, Fantasies and a Rondo” of Ferdinand Reis on fortepiano…actually on three different fortepianos. Most of the pieces appearing on the CD were written between 1713 and 1824, successful years Ries spent in London performing on the newly fashionable square pianos in the parlours of London’s middle class, also teaching, writing and publishing works suited to these salons.  Ries’ prominence in London was due to the help of another Bonn musician - violinist, conductor and composer Johann Peter Salomon, who had moved to London in the early 1780s and who used his connections with the aristocracy there to arrange concerts for Ries.

In the liner notes (Michael Tsalka, Angélica Minero Escobar) Tsalka alludes to the purpose of his recording as adding “another dimension to the figure of Ries both as a prolific composer and piano virtuoso”. The works he chose to perform also attest to the composer’s cosmopolitanism. Although composed in London, Variations in F major on a Beloved French Song “La Sentinelle”, opus 105 no.1 are a reminder that Ries had spent two (productive but unhappy) years in Paris. Not only did Tsalka’s playing of this piece bring out its richly appealing Classical pianistic style, textures and fine craftsmanship, it also directed whimsical reference to the self-importance of the lowly soldier on sentry duty: the original subject is reintroduced here and there throughout the variations. Also from opus 105, we heard Variations in C major on a Favourite Scotch Air "The Old Highland Laddie”, its familiar folk melody, with its Scotch snap and unpretentious play of major and minor, moving into the finesse and diversity offered by the Classical piano variation style; Michael Tsalka’s playing of it was fresh and spontaneous. Ries left Bonn for Russia in 1811, where he gave concerts with his former teacher Bernhard Romberg. (The tour was cut short when Napoleon’s army marched into Moscow.) In preparation for the Russian tour, Ries composed the Variations in A minor on a Cossack Song opus 40 no.1 (Marburg, 1810). This outstanding, small but challenging work, based on a humble but endearing Russian folk tune, is indicative of the breadth of Ries’ musical fantasy. Michael Tsalka’s articulate and engrossing playing of it took on board the piece’s many swift changes of temperament, its drama, its moments of weightlessness, of wistfulness, its elegance and velvety songfulness. I would imagine this might have been one of the works considered too difficult by London amateur keyboard players.      

In the fantasy titled “The Dream” opus 49 (London 1813), Tsalka takes the listener into a heavier work, one of emotional content suggestive of a narrative, its multi-sectional musical agenda of one idea seamlessly flowing into the next a clear precursor of the Romantic fantasy. The pianist chose the silver-tongued tone of the Conrad Graf instrument (c.1824) to create a convincing reading of the piece’s gamut of moods, its mystery, its searching and drama. Tsalka   chose the same instrument for his performance of the programmatic Fantasy in A flat on Schiller’s poem “Resignation” opus 109 (Clapham, 1821). A work at times calling to mind Schubert’s piano music, Tsalka probed the psychological drama depicted here in an almost seamless and indeed unpredictable volley of different and contrasting phrases, gestures, timbres and pianistic effects.

According to its opus number – 184 – the Introduction and Rondo in E flat major “à la Zingaresco” was probably written in Frankfurt am Main, where Ries lived from 1827 to his death )1838(. Frankfurt was a town of wealth and culture and the Ries family’s music room was a meeting place for musicians and music aficionados.  Tsalka’s spirited and gregarious reading of the Introduction and Rondo is hearty and entertaining. Who knows if Ferdinand Ries did not play it for the Frankfurt intelligentsia in his own musical salon!

Recorded at the Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA in August 2014 for the NAXOS label, all the works on this CD, except for the two fantasias, are world premiere recordings. Regarding the fortepianos he has chosen for this recording – an instrument after Johann Schantz (c.1800), one after Nanette Streicher, née Stein (c.1815) and one after Conrad Graf (c.1824), Michael Tsalka writes that he chose the three Viennese instruments “because the articulative precision of fluency of Ries’ musical style seem to correspond more closely to the clarity of their tone and their fast, responsive action and damping”. Dr. Michael Tsalka is one of the artists presently raising Ferdinand Reis’ music out of an unjustified state of obscurity. He has paid homage to the composer and his keyboard music, to the importance of music written for the musical salon and, thanks to the recording’s lively sound quality, to the beauty, the expressive possibilities and unadulterated sound world of the fortepiano.

A versatile musician, Michael Tsalka (Netherlands/Israel) maintains a busy international concert schedule and has held over eighty master classes in academic institutions on all continents. He has been artistic director of festivals in China, Sweden and Finland. Tsalka currently serves as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival, Amsterdam. Together with Angélica Minero Escobar, he is preparing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s thirty keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions, New Zealand.


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