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Ferdinand RIES (1784–1838)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in D major Op. 23 (1809) [26:37]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 80 (1814) [25:26]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major Op. 112 (1815) [24:26]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 90 (1813) [30:02]
Symphony No. 4 in F major Op. 110 (1818) [32:34]
Symphony No. 6 in D major Op. 146 (1822) [31:38]
Symphony No. 7 in A minor Op. 181 (1835) [33:59]
Symphony No. 8 in E Flat major, WoO 30 (1822) [32:56]
Zürcher Kammerorchester/Howard Griffiths.
rec. 1999 (1, 2), 2001 (4, 6), 2002 (7, 8), Neumünsterkirche, Zurich, Switzerland; 1997 (3, 5), Zurich Radio Studio. DDD
CPO 777 216-2 [4 CDs: 52:30 + 54:02 + 64:34 + 67:16]

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Born in Bonn and a student of Beethoven’s in Vienna, it is no surprise to find that the First Symphony of Ferdinand Ries is strong on fellow-feeling with Beethoven’s early symphonies. It was premiered in Leipzig on 4 October 1812. Perhaps more surprising is the masterly classical manner that reaches back to Mozart’s Jupiter. In the second movement there are several moments that sound like Schumann’s Fourth. Be assured though, this is no ragbag of cultural references. Nor does it creak with flaccid plagiarism.

The Second has much the same stylistic signature. In a performance that shivers with excitement and momentary grandeur this goes very well indeed. This was premiered by London’s Philharmonic Society where Ries had made a grand splash with the affluent finance men who then regarded skill at the piano as a mark of gentlemanly accomplishment. The most original gestures come in the third movement which, amid the storms, has some limpid and gracious solo wind writing. In fact there are quite a few bel canto touches throughout not that this feature stops the composer ending the symphony in a series of brusque brass-emphasised gestures. Beethoven was the dedicatee.

The Fifth Symphony can only have been written under the exaltation produced by knowing Beethoven’s Fifth. That jerky pecking Fate motif grips the first movement. In addition there are many other wholly delightful touches: try the antiphonal bel canto dialogue at 2:03 onwards. A ‘night-watch’ quick-march haunts the conspiratorial third movement and prepares the ground for the tempestuous return of the Fate motif in the finale. Rossini might well have been an influence too. As for that Fate motif its legacy can also be heard in the finale of the Third Symphony, in the Eighth Symphony and elsewhere. This work was premiered in London on 14 February 1814.

A London concert of the Philharmonic Society was the scene of the premiere of Ries’s Third Symphony on 15 May 1815. Cleverly calculated tremulous tension-building effects can be heard at the start as a scene–setter for the forward rush of the main Allegro. The andante reveals another Ries hallmark: the relaxed use of wind solos to create a blithe serenading contrast to offset his predilection for Beethovenian romps and storms.

The Fourth Symphony, like so many of the others, was written in London – where he was warmly welcomed and valued. It was dedicated to Louis Spohr who rated Ries’s symphonies highly. He continued to conduct performances of them in Kassel well into the 1840s past the point at which they were already plummeting into a neglect from which these recordings should help to rescue them. This Symphony has a few Weber-like touches but otherwise carries the usual fingerprints: a serious mien, skirling energy strong on thrust and riposte, resounding Beethovenian energy - try the Scherzo and the finale - and a leaning towards suave and touching bel canto asides.

The Sixth Symphony was performed again at London’s Philharmonic Society concert series on 13 June 1822. While the voice of the immortal Ludwig is in evidence again Ries also reaches again towards the Mozartian manner: try 2:43 onwards in the first movement. Intriguingly the Menuetto looks back to the baroque era – to Handel and perhaps Purcell. It’s interesting to hear this and mentally compare the approach adopted by Reger a century or so later in those of his works gripped by the music of the same era. The seraphic Larghetto third movement  prepares the ground for the extremely effective ‘Jingling Johnny’ alla turca drums and bells panoply of the finale. You will recall similar voices from Beethoven’s Choral, a work that Ries held in the highest esteem.

The Seventh Symphony – chronologically his last - continues the Beethovenian style with redolences drawn from the Seventh, the Pastoral and the Eroica. There is a distinct Rossinian and Neapolitan feel about the lively finale and the almost Lisztian start of the Scherzo is most striking. The Eighth Symphony is again blithe and mercurial in spirit with Schubert being a reasonable comparator for the effervescence of the writing especially in the  Scherzo. The finale looks to the more animated parts of Beethoven’s Fourth and Eighth symphonies and to Mozart’s Jupiter.

The first three discs are standard CDs while the last is an SACD hybrid which I heard in its CD format.

That these fine, insinuatingly pleasurable symphonies are played with such eager delight and thoughtful attention to flickering dynamics and antiphonal effect serves Ries’s cause handsomely. The long silence between the end of the first symphony on each disc and the start of the second speaks of CPO’s usual cultured approach as also do the fine notes. These are fortunately among the company’s better and less cerebral efforts.

There you have it: eight compact symphonies; none longer than 34 minutes, three under 30 minutes. All are in four movements. The writing follows a Beethovenian primer but Ries’s inspiration is his own and does not suffer the enervation of cloned productivity. I am quite sure you will enjoy these symphonies if you have any liking for the comparator works quoted above or for the slightly earlier symphonies of Spohr or those of Méhul or Weber.

Rob Barnett

Links to reviews of individual discs in the CPO Ries cycle:

Symphonies 1 and 2:

Symphonies 7 and 8:


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