1999 July-August Fanfare
By Henry Fogel

DRAESEKE Cello Sonata in D, op. 51. Ballade for Cello and Piano in b. Barcarole for Cello and Piano in A. 5 Piano Pieces
Barbara Thiem (cello); Wolfgang Mueller, piano

DRAESEKE Viola Sonatas: No. 1 in c; No. 2 in F
Franco Sciannameo (viola); Eric Moe, piano

  Felix Draeseke was a German Romantic composer (1835-1913) who achieved some success during his lifetime but whose music has fallen into obscurity since his death. It is easy to assume that such a composer deserves the fate history has chosen for him, but the more of his music with which I become familiar, the less I accept that conclusion. His Symphonia Tragica, recorded on Urania many decades ago (and reissued on a Varèse Sarabande LP) is a gripping piece of work, and his A-Minor Grosse Messe (Globe GLO 5147) is very beautiful as well. I tried to love his endless oratorio Christus, but found its almost five-hour length not to be sustained by sufficient musical inspiration to justify the commitment it demanded of the listener. There is much in this ambitious work that merits attention, and listened to in segments (it is a prolog plus three separate oratorios meant to be performed over a five-day period) it provides many moments of beauty (Bayer BR 100175-79).

Now come the first two discs of his chamber music to be released by the International Draeseke Society, and one can only cheer. This is beautiful music, very beautiful music. It is hard to imagine a listener who responds to the music of Brahms or Schumann who would not find the music on these discs very appealing, though you should not take this to mean that Draeseke is imitative or derivative. If I had to start with one CD, it would be the cello disc, because the Cello Sonata strikes me as possibly being a masterpiece. I try not to overuse that word, and often object to the way it is bandied about. But after a half dozen hearings, the mysteries of this lovely Sonata are still being revealed, and that is one sign of great music--that it has something to give on every new hearing. Brahmsian in some ways in its basic color, and even a bit in the contours of some of its melodic material, this 1890 work is nonetheless clearly not by Brahms or by anyone else we already know. Its fascinating harmonic world, a world of unusual and even innovative harmonic relationships and shifts, is unique. It would appear that Draeseke has his own style, and that it is an identifiable one once we get to know a few of his works. It is rare to find a work this far off the beaten path that contains this level of melodic invention, harmonic originality, structural integrity, and contrapuntal complexity. The shorter cello works are lovely and somewhat simpler in their compositional direction (both are earlier). The five piano pieces come from different periods in Draeseke's output (from the 1860s to the 1880s), and show us the development of his unusual harmonic style as well as an innovative ear for keyboard coloration.

The two viola sonatas were written relatively late in Draeseke's career (1892 and 1901-02), and were intended not for the standard viola but the viola alta, an invention intended to make a richer, less nasal sound than the traditional instrument. The invention went the way of other such ideas (remember Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata?), but the music suits the regular viola perfectly. While I don't find the melodic inspiration of these two pieces to be quite on the remarkable level of the Cello Sonata, that is not to imply aridity. These are both works that retain the listener's affection and attention through repeated listening, and reward that listener with the sense of having discovered something of import.

The performances are first rate on both discs. So often we are given the mixed blessing of new repertoire discoveries in mediocre or poor performances, but that is not the case here. Care has been taken to assure that Draeseke is given every opportunity to find a public. The playing is technically assured and interpretively alert and fresh throughout. These are not sight-readings but committed performances by musicians who believe in this repertoire and who know how to master their instruments. The recorded sound is as natural and warm as you would wish. Throughout, the production values of these two discs are superb--every detail is the way one would expect (though not always get) from the largest of recording companies. One slight error, a mistiming of the first of the piano pieces on DR-0002 (it should be 4:12, not 9:57), was actually pointed out to me by the Draeseke Society when the sent the discs for review.

A word must be said about Alan Krueck, the head of the Draeseke Society and a man who has devoted much of his life to this composer. In the interest of journalistic candor, I should acknowledge that I knew Mr. Krueck almost 40 years ago in Syracuse, NY, and even did some radio work with him. And I read at that time (or shortly thereafter--the years blur) his doctoral dissertation on Draeseke's Symphonia Tragica. We have had no contact for over three decades until I learned of his Draeseke Society and inquired about these discs. Krueck, it turns out, has never wavered in his devotion to this composer--and he's right! Felix Draeseke deserves a champion of this persistence. But unlike most such champions, Krueck does his work thoroughly and well, knowing that enthusiasm is not enough. It was Krueck who actually discovered the manuscript of one of the viola sonatas, and it was Krueck who produced these superb discs, for which he also provides some of the most useful and intelligent program notes I've encountered in a long time. If you have any interest in chamber music of the Romantic era, you should make the effort to obtain these two discs.

These discs are available through the International Draeseke Society, Box 104 Sand Lake, NY 12153; the cost is $15.00 (including shipping and handling) for members, and $18.49 for non-members. All monies will go toward future recording projects--you might wish to write to them for membership information. Few societies devoted to a composer or a performer are doing real work of this quality, and they should be encouraged. I would recommend membership, as more discs are planned, and the lower price for members will eventually compensate for the cost of joining.
*Note: edited only to reflect current address of the Draeseke Society

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