Beethoven, Ries, Archduke Rudolph

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COMPOSERS: Archduke Rudolph,Beethoven,Ries
LABELS: Koch
WORKS: Bagatelles, Op. 119
PERFORMER: Susan Kagan (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 3-7521-2
Archduke Rudolph of Austria is remembered primarily as Beethoven’s staunchest patron and the most richly endowed dedicatee in musical history. He was also a devoted pupil of the master, with aspirations as an amateur composer; and his variations on a song theme provided by his teacher started life as a schoolroom exercise. Contemporary reviews, perhaps with a nod of deference towards his Imperial Highness, were highly complimentary. For 21st-century ears, though, 40 variations clocking in at half-an-hour are likely to prove a serious endurance test. For the first 36, Rudolph sticks debilitatingly to the four-bar structure and harmonic outline of Beethoven’s banal theme; and while the final group of variations breaks out of this straitjacket, culminating in a perky rondo and a perfunctory fugue, the invention never rises above the workaday. Susan Kagan proves a dedicated advocate, both in her playing and in her booklet notes. But I don’t intend to sit through this vapid piece again.

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There is more substance in the fantasia Le songe by Beethoven’s friend and one-time amanuensis Ferdinand Ries, though the composer’s distinctive lyrical charm and pathos jostle with passages of empty rhetoric. Beethoven’s Op. 119 Bagatelles, assembled from pieces composed over many years, are, of course, on a different plane altogether. And while Susan Kagan’s playing is always thoughtful, it remains earthbound, with too little of the fantasy, quirky humour and self-communing inwardness that such pianists as Brendel and Kovacevich bring to these often elusive miniatures. Richard Wigmore