The more Draeseke is played, the better he sounds. Every one of the four symphonies is strong, but they lack a performing tradition. Historically and aesthetically, Draeseke, like Bruckner and Brahms, sits midway between the heroic directness of Beethoven and the complex ironies of early 20th-century Viennese music by Mahler and others. This oversimplifies, but the important point is that Draeseke, like the best of his contemporaries, was finding something new and quite his own to say about ways of relating life's highs and lows -- or, if you prefer, music's highs and lows. And in that something new is a palpable tension between directness and ironic indirection (a tension I don't hear in the winning but more aesthetically conservative symphonies of Bruch and Dvorak). Because there's no performing tradition, we don't have yet a seasoned musical rhetoric that grows out of Draeseke's original voice.
Sometimes with an unsung composer the best we can do at first with a passage is be reminded of another composer and then be disappointed that the follow-through goes in a different direction, doesn't push the familiar buttons. Personally, it wasn't until I'd listened to the "Tragica" a number of times that I started to understand where Draeseke was going with that title.
This symphony does not aim to be an expressive "Pathetique," nor does it try to solve its problems by feeding the brass section martial perorations. Over the course of its first three movements it attains a mature nobility different from but akin to that heard in scores by Beethoven, Bruckner, and Brahms. Then in the final movement, with a dramatist's instinct, Draeseke throws the symphony's musical premises into question, heartfelt though they be. For myself it's not too much to claim that the development of this final movement is one of the high points of German romanticism. With the exception of Bruckner's Symphony 5, no nineteenth-century work after Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, opus 133, known to me pursues its musical goal so relentlessly and with such economical means. Here is a score that shares a kinship with both Bach and later Stravinsky, yet also with Liszt and Wagner. The goal that the finale's development works so hard to achieve turns out to be the symphony's striking -- and doubt-ridden -- opening paragraph, a summons that confirms the musical argument as an unmistakable dark night of the soul.
While modern recorded performances do capture the development's intensity, none point the music toward the climactic re-entrance. As a result, it took me several listenings to discern the symphony's alternative journey to regions assayed in Bruckner's Symphony 9 (to my mind the greatest of "doubt" symphonies). Another listener might pick up on this much faster. In any event, both recent recordings of Draeseke's Symphony 3 are well recorded and enthusiastically played. Both interpretations are intelligent, even if neither entirely succeeds in delineating the innate rhetoric of Draeseke's music. However, Hanson's performance better captures the Draeseke who created musical dramas and gorgeous lieder as well as, to quote Amazon reviewer A K Howe, the newly forged symphonic "idiom which synthesizes the 'New German' music of Liszt and Wagner with ... traditional classicism ..." Simply put, I find the Hanson rendition with the Symphony Orchestra Wuppertal more moving. I don't hesitate to recommend it as the warmer and more nuanced recording of Draeseke's Third.