Felix Draeseke’s Surprising Second Symphony

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 9

Could it be that Felix Draeseke, composer of the dreary Symphonia tragica and the interminable oratorio Christus, had that most elusive of qualities (especially in German music): a sense of humor? Draeseke himself might just have known it. His fourth and last symphony, composed the year before his death in 1913, is subtitled “Symphonia comica”, and anecdotal evidence suggests that he had quite an affable personality. Nor is it surprising, given the cultural milieu in which he operated, that he felt pressured to create “serious” music of tragic mien, and that he and his contemporaries valued the comparatively tedious austerity of his expressions of musical misery above his more humorous creations. But the fact is that the boring backwaters of conservative late-Romantic German music are chock-full of “masterpieces” expressing theoretically tragic, lofty, and elevated sentiments, while true comic masterworks scarcely exist. Well, here we have one, and it’s a gem.

Composed in 1872, the Second Symphony shares its sunny and warm principal key of F major with a distinguished and select 19th century company: Beethoven’s Sixth and Eighth, Dvorák’s Fifth, and Brahms’ Third. The first movement presents ebullient themes developed with unflagging energy, their chromatic twists adding spice and harmonic distinction to what easily could have become an academic assertion of major-key blandness. A truly original Allegretto marciale second movement may be distantly related to the similarly placed march in Schubert’s Ninth, but its peculiar mixture of seriousness and drollery has little precedent in German symphonic music of any era. A warmly lyrical Allegro comodo scherzo leads to the highlight of the symphony: a hilarious Presto leggiero finale whose delicious tunes, brightly scored (including an effective and highly unusual part for triangle) offer an abundance of humor in their clever and witty development.

The Serenade in D (Mozart’s “serenade key” par excellence) also exudes an easygoing charm that never becomes precious or facile. The first movement once again reveals Draeseke’s ability to write march music that never bogs down in rhythmic monotony, and while the central Love Scene may not be the sexiest piece on earth, it’s very pretty. Once again the Prestissimo leggiero finale shows that Draeseke could write superb light music of the highest quality. The only drawback here is the second-movement serenade (Ständchen), in which the solo violist gasps and snorts in really distracting fashion. Never mind: this is good stuff, and the first music I’ve heard that consistently sustains this composer’s claim for a modern reappraisal.

Jörg-Peter Weigle leads vigorous, confident, and splendidly managed performances of both symphonies, beautifully played by the Hanover Radio Philharmonic. He clearly relishes the opportunities for humor that Draeseke offers in the finales of both works and captures the curious bittersweet quality of the symphony’s second-movement march with complete sympathy. CPO’s sonics also are first class, but the notes, while German in their exactitude, are positively British in their provincialism (defensively referring, for example, to the composer himself as “sublime”). I await a recording of the Symphonia comica from these forces with impatience. It may be sad to learn that Draeseke spent most of his life working in channels singularly uncongenial to his talents, but how heartening that at least we have some evidence of what his true métier probably was.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

FELIX DRAESEKE - Symphony No. 2 in F; Serenade in D


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