Symphony No. 1 in G major, Op. 12
Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR conducted by Jorg-Peter Weigle
A review by Alan Howe (August 2005)
Listen to excerpts of this recording (courtesy of cpo):
Any new CD of music by Draeseke is heartily to be welcomed, especially when it contains a previously unrecorded work (the Symphonia Comica). Thus cpo are to be congratulated on finally completing their Draeseke symphony cycle with the NDR Radiophilharmonie of Hanover under conductor Jörg-Peter Weigle with this disc of the composer’s First and Fourth Symphonies, together with the Overture to his opera Gudrun. I say ’finally’ because these recordings have in fact been in the can since August 2002 and have accordingly been long awaited by committed Draesekeaner!
The CD turns out to be a very good, but not perfect advertisement for Draeseke’s music, containing as it does works from his early, middle and late periods (Symphony No. 1 - 1868-72; Gudrun Overture - 1882; Symphony No.4 - 1912). The good points are the vigour of Weigle’s conducting, the high-quality response which he elicits from his orchestra (one of Germany’s many excellent regional broadcasting orchestras) and the first-class sound engineering. On the other hand, there is one serious interpretative blot which must be faced, of which more in a moment….
The Symphony No. 1 has been recorded before, by American conductor George Hanson and the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra on MDG, and a comparison of the two performances is most instructive. These are the timings given on the two CDs:
Timings do not always tell everything about a performance, but in this case the comparison is an essential reference-point. And the point at issue? As the above table reveals, the two conductors are seriously at odds as to how the slow movement is to be interpreted; and this is significant because, as Alan Krueck makes clear in his study of Draeseke’s symphonies, the Adagio is surely the greatest symphonic slow movement between those of Schumann’s Second (1845-6) and Bruckner’s Seventh (1881-3) Symphonies (1). Get this movement wrong, in other words, and the interpretation as a whole will be seriously compromised.
Two pointers here can help orientate us interpretatively. The first is the composer’s marking Adagio molto, which suggests that the music should be taken very deliberately indeed. The second is Krueck’s surely significant remark that ‘if played at proper tempo this movement lasts between 15-20 minutes’ (2).
It is not difficult, therefore, to see - and hear! - the major weakness of Weigle’s performance of the First Symphony. In short, his account of the great gem of this work, its slow movement, is simply too rushed: a good example is the way he takes the passage leading to one of the great final climaxes (from 9:47), but in fact the whole conception is simply wrong-headed from start to finish.
Weigle’s way with the Adagio is a serious fault - and all the more frustrating because, on balance, he improves on Hanson in the other movements. In the opening Allegro and in the Scherzo Weigle is fleeter of foot and he maintains his advantage in the Finale too (his account is actually quite a bit shorter than Hanson because the cpo timing includes the silent run-off after the end of the movement!)
The two recordings display other differences characteristic of the approaches of the two conductors. On MDG Hanson seems to produce a heavier, thicker sound from his orchestra, whereas on cpo Weigle encourages a leaner and crisper response. One might almost say that Hanson’s approach is more Brucknerian - one that pays particular dividends, as we have seen, in the great Adagio.
When we pass on to the Gudrun Overture, a further comparison between the same two conductors awaits us. Here again Hanson has already committed the piece to disc, in a recording included on his CD of the Third Symphony, the Tragica. This time, however, the interpretative approaches appear to be reversed, for at 10:46 Hanson is quicker than Weigle (11:31). However, in this case Weigle is far superior. Once past a somewhat lethargic opening, he is far more interesting than Hanson, his orchestra crisper and cleaner in articulation as is its wont; and in Weigle’s hands the conclusion has real Schwung, with just as much weight as his rival in the riveting final bars.
With the Fourth Symphony, Weigle’s disc is, of course, hors-concours. As far as this writer is concerned, the inclusion of the Symphonia Comica is the reason for buying this disc. No Draesekeaner, of course, is going to want to be without it; and anyone unfamiliar with Draeseke’s music will benefit enormously from getting to know it and so gain an understanding of the composer’s response to what for him were the confusing new musical currents of his day (3).
Weigle again displays his most admirable qualities in this work - precision, clarity and vigour. What emerges is truly the work of a master-craftsman who composed in defiance of the creators of the new Konfusion in music.
Finally, a word about Christoph Schlüren’s sleeve note for cpo. Again, there are good points and not-so-good. So, for example, we must be grateful to him for the huge amount of background information which he provides - although he surely errs in concluding his essay on the Comica with a consideration of the programmatic element of the symphony’s second movement (the Fliegenkrieg), an emphasis which leads us to imagine the swatting of flies rather than of Draeseke’s pesky critics! What is missing, however, is a proper analysis of the music itself (except in respect of the Gudrun Overture): one also looks in vain for any real estimate of the status of Draeseke as a symphonist. This is a real opportunity missed.
To sum up, despite Weigle’s miscalculation in the Adagio of the First Symphony, the new CD is an essential purchase because our knowledge of Draeseke is greatly enhanced by at last being able to hear the Comica. Nevertheless, the Hanson performance of Symphony No. 1 also remains a must-buy for his patient handling of the slow movement of that work and so it is to his performance that purchasers seeking just that work should turn.
When added to the cpo CDs of Draeseke’s Second and Third Symphonies, the new disc gives us the first complete cycle of Draeseke’s symphonies. At last the musical public can see the composer for what he was: the greatest unrecognised composer of the second half of the nineteenth century and a symphonist ranking with but very different from his eminent contemporary, Brahms.
Sell you shirt and buy this CD! And then buy it again and give it to your friends. Draeseke’s time has surely come…
1. Alan H. Krueck, The Symphonies of Felix Draeseke (Roscoe, PA: Roscoe Ledger Co., 1967), p. 51
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