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Ferdinand RIES (1784-1838)
Symphony no.1 in D, op.23
Symphony no.2 in C, op.80
Zurich Chamber Orchestra/Howard Griffiths
Rec Neumünsterkirche, Zürich, 21-24 Sept 1999
CPO 999 716-2 [52.30]
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The contemporaries of Haydn and Mozart - Dittersdorf, Vanhal and so on - have long been happy hunting grounds for revivalists with a small chamber orchestra at their disposition. So, increasingly, have the romantics of the mid-19th Century - Gade, Raff and even the British Potter and Macfarren. The impression has rather remained that such was the power of Beethoven's genius that he alone spoke for his day and age (remember that Schubert, if Beethoven's younger contemporary, belonged really to the following generation). Did Beethoven really intimidate his contemporaries into abject imitation?

If we turn to the Second Symphony of Beethoven's pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries, the answer would appear to be 'yes'. The first movement seems to have a doppelganger accompanying it and that doppelganger is the first movement of the Eroica. It is a curious and instructive experience to hear turns of phrase, rhythmic patterns and modulations (an outrageous example of the latter in the slow movement, too) which seem so familiar, but which are reduced to idle, if agreeable, table-talk. It's also true that Griffiths spins the piece along at a fair lick, but I am sure he is right and it would never take the weight a Klemperer brought to bear on the corresponding movement of the Eroica. If you want a classical symphony to do the washing-up to, then far better this than blaspheme the Eroica itself.

However, the finale brings an apparent borrowing which cannot be - from the last movement of Schubert's 4th, written two years later. Yet the parallel use of lyrical themes upheld by a repetitive rhythmic trajectory is uncanny (I refer to the minor-key sections, not the monstrous crib from Beethoven 5 finale when it goes into the major).

But there was more to Ries than this. The slow introduction to the First Symphony is ear-catching in its harmonic progressions (and Griffiths extracts a maximum of poetry from it, with some really beautiful wind solos) and the main body of the movement incorporates a wide range of thematic material. Without striking individuality, the themes do not recall specific Beethovenian models (except at one point in the Marche funèbre; the booklet-notes writer proudly says it bears little resemblance to the Eroica funeral march. Indeed it doesn't, but it quotes almost note-for-note that of the op.26 Piano Sonata). More fascinatingly, the whole work, in part because of its imaginative orchestration, sounds considerably later than its date. Listening blind I would have taken it for a conservative post-Schubertian, post-Mendelssohnian romantic work by someone like Gade.

So, the First is a minor find and the Second is at least good fun. The performances are unlikely to be bettered and the recording is warm and pleasant if a little over-reverberant (note that it was made in a church). The booklet notes, in three languages, gives a very full background to Ries and his times although they may overstate the case for the works themselves. The musically curious (all of us, I would like to think) need not hesitate.

Christopher Howell

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