Ferdinand Ries was not only Beethoven’s pupil and amanuensis but one of his first biographers—so to some extent he has himself to blame if our view of Beethoven as one of history’s 'great men' has eclipsed any memory of musicians such as himself. In Beethoven’s Vienna and later in Regency London—his home for a decade or so—Ries was celebrated both as a pianist and a prolific composer, and there are dozens of chamber works the Nash Ensemble could have chosen for this recording.
Ries often played his own music in ensembles, and when he did he made sure he was the star. In the Grand Sextet in C—the first of the four works here—the piece has barely begun before the piano scurries off into its own solo. From then on the piano is always in charge, not least in the slow movement, where it spins a wistful, song-like melody out of the sombre opening. There’s an expansive, almost orchestral breadth of sonority to the music, thanks in part to having a double bass in the lineup alongside the standard string quartet plus piano. The Nash Ensemble’s performance comes alive because the other musicians never quite seem to accept their secondary status, challenging the pianist Benjamin Frith with playing that bristles with pent-up energy.
The ensemble’s selection also includes an Introduction and Russian Dance, featuring Frith and the cellist Adrian Brendel, and the Piano Trio in C minor. What stands out, though, is the Sextet in G minor. This time the lineup is harp, piano, clarinet, bassoon, horn and double bass, an unusual group that offered Ries some intriguing sonorities, especially when juxtaposing piano and harp. It’s a rewarding piece, and you won’t hear it more persuasively played than this.