Symphony No. 1 in G major, Op. 12
Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR conducted by Jorg-Peter Weigle
A review by Barry Brenesal (Fanfare Magazine Issue 30:1 - Sept/Oct 2006)
Listen to excerpts of this recording (courtesy of cpo):
DRAESEKE Symphonies: No. 1 in G. No. 4 in e, “Symphonia comica.” Gudrun: Overture • Jörg-Peter Weigle, cond; North German RPO • cpo 999 746 (68:58)
Felix Draeseke tried his hand at a symphony in his 20th year, a work that it's now believed he destroyed. He was not to produce another until his published Symphony No. 1, begun in 1868 and completed in 1872. It was a tumultuous time for the composer: unsuccessful treatments for his increasingly poor hearing, the death of his father, an engagement to one of his students broken off by her parents, a complete break with Wagner following the so-called Cosima Affair, and a lengthy trip through France, Spain, North Africa, and Italy, before returning to his self-imposed exile in Switzerland.
But those Swiss years, and especially his travels, were beneficial to Draeseke the musician. He emerged with a greater respect for classical form, and an ability to manipulate it on a larger scale that was extremely impressive—as the glory of that First Symphony, its Adagio movement, demonstrates. If the first and final movements still suffer from undifferentiated thematic material, rhythms, and orchestral coloration, they also reveal a newly won understanding of counterpoint, and a textural clarity that would never desert him. The Symphony's scherzo is its other gem. Reminiscent of Raff at his most gracious, it reveals a vein of light-footed fancy that is too often forgotten when evaluating the stature of the “Symphonia tragica”'s composer.
The Symphony No. 4 was completed in 1912, and was Draeseke's last orchestral work. As briefly indicated above, his was not an easy path to success, but he managed it with fortitude and kept—if the remarks of contemporaries and students are to be believed—a lightness of spirit that made the composer a respected and even beloved figure in Dresden's musical establishment.
That lightness is certainly on display in the “Symphonia comica.” (When supposedly asked by conductor Bruno Kittel what the symphony was about, Draeseke replied, “Just hold your head up high and laugh only at what merits tears!” In this, if nothing else, he could have clasped hands across time with the composer of Falstaff.) It is a work of buoyant joy, an extension of that earlier scherzo in character, but easily surpassing it in terms of wit, originality, and imagination. Orchestrally piquant, harmonically devious (in a manner that recalls Reger—or is it Reger that recalls Draeseke?), thematically memorable, and constructed with all the subtlety of which the composer by then was a past master, it amazes me that the work lay unpublished until 1996. But Draeseke was never gifted with good fortune; he always had to struggle for it. That he kept his titanic laughter is remarkable enough; that he could produce, at the end of his long and contentious life, a masterpiece (the term is not an overstatement in this instance) such as the “Symphonia comica” is frankly astonishing.
The overture to the heroic opera, Gudrun, was premiered separately from the rest of the work in January of 1883. It is a brilliantly conceived work, dramatic in character, looking back to Weber as the model for several of its themes, but demonstrating once again a refined knowledge of counterpoint that never hampers the exuberant energy of the piece. With numerous operas by Reznicek and Kienzl being performed and recorded, is it too much to hope for a chance to evaluate the entire work on CD, anytime soon?
As to the performances: I have railed elsewhere in these pages against a tendency among some modern conductors to confuse eschewing sentimentality with rushing slow movements. This disfigures both the movements themselves, which frequently sound prosaic at a hurried pace, and the structure of the entire composition. So it proves again, here. Weigle—normally alert, precise, and alive to the music's internal logic—seems completely oblivious to the expressive message in the First Symphony's magnificent Adagio. Taken at a more appropriate tempo on an album that featured George Hanson and the Wuppertal SO (MDG 3350929), this movement sings. In this recording, it barely makes an impression.
What is frustrating about all this is that in every other respect, I prefer Weigle. He reminds me of Nikolai Malko in the transparency of his textures, the flow of his beat, and a precision that never degenerates into stiffness. These are not easy virtues to find, and some fine conductors never quite get the hang of all three. Weigle's treatment of the Scherzo in the First Symphony is an excellent example of his skill. If he never quite manages to convey the theatrical sweep of the Overture from Gudrun, he nevertheless brings out much of the color in the piece, and faithfully reveals what a solidly composed work it is, underneath its wealth of charm. The NDR Radio Philharmonic performs impeccably, and cpo's engineers provide a warm and sonically forward ambience that does credit to their efforts.
In sum, this is a richly rewarding disc. I defy anybody with a taste for German Romanticism not to enjoy it, and anybody with a refined sense of musical humor not to smile, and marvel, at the “Symphonia comica.”
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