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 the complexities of 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 aims not to be an expressive "Pathetique," nor a solution to problems resolved by feeding the brass section martial perorations. To quote Amazon reviewer A K Howe, it manifests a newly forged symphonic "idiom which synthesizes the 'New German' music of Liszt and Wagner with ... traditional classicism..." That makes it historically interesting. But its interest is far more than historical. Over the course of its first three movements it attains a mature nobility akin to yet different from 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. It's immense majesty and power have rarely been equaled.
The finale's first musical idea takes the subject of the first movement and transforms it in a way that does honor to Berlioz, Schumann, and other composers who made such transformations meaningful, daringly turning the noble subject of the first movement into a barely recognizable -- yet still recognizable -- unsettling discovery process. With the exception of Bruckner's Symphony 5, no nineteenth-century work known to me after Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, opus 133, pursues its musical goal so relentlessly and with such economical and compelling means. Here is a score that shares a kinship with Bach and 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.
As mentioned, I'm a slow learner. So it took me several listenings to discern the finale'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.
Both recent recordings of Draeseke's Symphony 3 are well recorded and enthusiastically played. Both interpretations are intelligent, even if neither has had sufficient rehearsal time to delineate the unique rhetoric of Draeseke's music. However, Hanson's performance better captures the dark drama of Draeseke, who created operas and gorgeous lieder. 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.