Felix Draeseke’s music seems to divide critics, and in a somewhat curious manner – some critics warm to certain of his works and dismiss precisely the other works that other critics find to be revelatory. I can sort of understand why. The music seems at one point firmly rooted in tradition (Schumann and Weber, but also Liszt); at the next it is rather forward-looking, toward German late romanticism. And it is often surprisingly reluctant to yield its goods – the style strikes one as the kind that should be rather instantly appealing, yet it often turns out to be quite elusive (partially because little of the music relies on any particularly strong themes or melodic material, I suppose).
And then again, it is little doubt that the music is of variable quality; the fourth symphony is a fine work, but elusive enough to require a bit of work on the part of the listener. Apply the same efforts to the other works here, and I, at least, have thus far failed to come up with very significant returns. The overture to Gudrun, in particular, is boring – true, the final climax is effective, but to get there you have to endure some nine minutes of uneventful note spinning (I don’t expect to hear the whole opera, but the overture doesn’t make me feel that I am missing anything either). Then there is the first symphony, a flawed and ultimately barely worthwhile work on a grand scale. The outer movements, which stylistically sound a bit like a combination of Schumann and late Schubert, exhibit solid craftsmanship but little by way of inspiration – they are not horrible, by any means, but neither to they rise above tons of similar music from Draeseke’s contemporaries – and the slow movement is on the dull side. The humorous, glittering Scherzo, however, is worth getting to know.
But the fourth symphony is rather fine. Joyful, buoyant and brief (20 minutes overall) it is a deftly composed work of genuine humor (the “War of the Flies” movement perhaps in particular), brilliantly scored – but the humor isn’t as obvious as one might expect, and I, at least, needed to give the work several tries before it all made sense. It is in no way a timeless masterpiece, partially because of the drawback that characterizes most of the music here – the lack of any very interesting thematic material.
So overall this disc’s musical rewards are variable. What is never in question, however, is the quality of the performances. The NDR Radiophilharmonie plays with spirit, with, panache and glittering colors under Jörg-Peter Weigle. Indeed, I doubt one could reasonably expect a better case to be made for this music, and CPO provides a very fine recorded sound. As such, this disc ultimately deserves to be heard by those with an interest in German romanticism – but I am not sure that one would miss much if one gave it a pass either; the fourth symphony is certainly worth hearing, even recommended listening, but I suppose those interested in the composer should turn first to his most successful work, the third symphony.