What follows is a brief invective against critics by way of a review, so if you want to read the review only, kindly skip to paragraph 3.
As hard as it is to imagine now, at the turn of the twentieth century it was fashionable for critics to write of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Haydn as second-rate composers. Haydn's chief failures were to have lived into Beethoven's Middle Period, by which time he should have been conveniently long dead, and to have not been Mozart. Mendelssohn's and Schumann's failure was to have not been Wagner (though if Wagner had died, as Mendelssohn had, at age 38, we'd all be asking Richard Who? whenever we hear his name). A hundred years on, of course, these three composers are firmly ensconced (with the possible exception of Mendelssohn) in the Great Composers' League, thanks in large part it seems to me to sound recording. When gifted conductors play Schumann's symphonies, for example, with love and care, we understand fully why they've been in the repertory for 150 years despite cavils about faulty orchestration and development. When a great conductor performs Haydn's choral music, we find that here is the true progenitor of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Choral Symphony, while the younger Mozart for the most part emerges as a composer of Rococo choral-operatic hybrids. (But giving critics their due, they are sometimes the first to recognize their shortcomings. I don't recall how often I've seen a famous Schumann biographer and critic I won't name eat her words about a piece of the master's little-known music once she had finally heard it performed.)
This is all to say that we are similarly lucky to be able to admire the work of Ferdinand Ries, relegated for a century and a half to the scrap heap of Beethoven imitators. Perhaps it's just that Ries sounds so much like Ludwig that we haven't gotten around to appreciate him as much as, say, Niels Gade-who sounds pretty much like a cross between Mendelssohn and Schumann-is now admired. But once you get over telling yourself that this cadence is right out of Ludwig's Fourth Symphony or that that tutti passage is cribbed from the Eroica, you start to hear what is uniquely Ries, and it is often stunning. Take the mysterious introduction to Ries' Fourth Symphony. Beethoven didn't use introductions in most of his later symphonies, and he never created one as potently ominous as this one, with its prominent drum beats, so that when the sunny F major music of the Allegro enters we feel as if a crisis has been successfully resolved. Similarly, when the dancing main theme of the Sixth Symphony first movement, shadowed throughout the development by D-minor clouds, erupts in a minor-key explosion, we knew all along that the storm was a-brewing. In other words, like Beethoven, Ries builds compelling dramas in the course of his symphonic movements. His elegant, patrician-sounding melodies, like Beethoven's also, lend themselves naturally to symphonic development without quite Ludwig's reliance on motivic cells. Next to Beethoven's, Ries melodies often seem quite long-limbed and are often attractive and memorable.
Then there is the finale of the Sixth Symphony. It is the sort of "victory" music Ludwig wrote for the finale of his Egmont Overture or the notorious "Wellington's Victory," but taking his cue from the Choral Symphony, Ries includes Turkish percussion and creates a refreshingly jaunty, almost dancing victory celebration unlike any Beethoven ever penned. And yet, with the exception of the Spohr-like slow movement, this symphony is not Beethoven light. That balletic last movement has muscle and sinew galore. And perhaps that's the point. If Beethoven had established the symphony as a musical form of high drama, the problem for his successors was to find new ways to let that drama unfold. In his Sixth Symphony at least, Ries found a very satisfying way to do just that.
Elsewhere, I have praised Howard Griffiths' recording of the Ries Third and Fifth Symphonies, but I think if you want an introduction to the symphonic Ries, the current recording is the one to have. The unusual nature of the Sixth Symphony and the dramatic intensity of the Fourth mark these as the finest symphonies I've heard from the composer, and the performances are absolutely top-notch-razor sharp and potent. Excellent sound from CPO, too, captured in a resonant acoustic that lends a proper grandeur to Ries' music. Highly recommended.