WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: Zürich CO/Howard Griffiths
CATALOGUE NO: 999 716-2
‘Closer reminiscences – especially of Beethoven’s symphonies – than is reasonable,’ was the verdict of one reviewer when Ferdinand Ries’s First Symphony was premiered in Leipzig in 1812. True, from its dissonant opening à la Beethoven No. 1, the briskly martial first movement brings distant reminders of the master’s First and Second Symphonies; and there are no prizes for spotting the inspiration behind the second-movement Marche funèbre – though Ries’s funeral march is at once far simpler in design and more crudely melodramatic than Beethoven’s. Allusions aside, Ries is an expert craftsman, with an attractive vein of plaintive melody: his developments – especially the Haydnish fugato in the finale – are concise and to the point, his writing for woodwind witty and inventive.
Ries’s magpie tendencies are more blatant in the opening movement of the Second Symphony, which starts out as a coarsened paraphrase of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto and continues with near-verbatim quotations from the first movement of the Eroica. These cribs from Beethoven backfire, only underlining how constricted and conventional Ries’s musical thinking is by comparison. The Romanze-style Andantino has a certain wan charm; but there is more substance in the proto-Romantic minuet and the finale, with its characteristic contrasts between melancholy and sforzando-laden theatricality. If the strings of the Zürich orchestra can sound a bit edgy under pressure, the performances – eager, colourful and finely detailed – make an excellent case for these uneven but intriguing pieces. Richard Wigmore