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AK/Coburg Recordings
International Draeseke Society/NA Box 104 Sand Lake, NY 12153
USA
Fanfare Review of AK/Coburg DR 0005
 

DRAESEKE Romanze in F, op. 32.1,5 Adagio in a, op. 31.1,5 Fata morgana, op. 13.5 Kleine Suite, op. 87.2,5 Das verlassene Mägd'lein.3,5 Lieder, op. 2, vol. 1.3,5 3 Gesange, op. 76.3,5 Der Mönch von Bonifazio, op. 744,5 Thomas Crome, (hn);1 Georg Lustig, (Eh);2 Ingrid Würtz, (sop);3 Helmut Loos, (nar);4 Wolfgang Müller-Steinbach, (pn)5 AK/COBURG DR 0005 (74:26)

Past releases in this series from the International Draeseke Society have usually focused upon formally structured, multimovement chamber compositions, such as violin sonatas (DR 0001), a clarinet sonata (DR 0003), and a pair of very attractive quintets (DR 0004). This is the company's first album to consist entirely of short pieces, either singly or strung together in character-based suites. As such, it emphasizes a more intimate side of Draeseke's art, one that is no less aesthetically satisfying for being composed on a reduced scale. It also casts a reflective light on the state of music-making among not only professionals but solidly trained amateurs, at a time when "home entertainment" meant entertainment you and your middle-class family and friends made for yourselves.

Go to Fanfare's websiteThe best example to illustrate such differences of scale in structure and time is Fata morgana, subtitled "A Wreath of Ghasels." The title itself derives from the literary interests of 18th- and 19th-century Europe in exotic and pseudo-exotic poetry and fiction, including that of Persia. Draeseke isn't programmatic, but uses the poetic scheme of the ghasel to inspire a musical equivalent. The content is similar to many such works by Schumann, Heller, and others: short pieces whose titles suggest images or subjective moods, sometimes with a dreamy or humorous tinge. "Happiness in Loneliness" captures Schumann's quicksilver musical personality and "Tender Message" his sentiment, while "Book of Discontent" has a self-mocking, melodramatic quality that recalls his gentle satire. But the harmonic logic of "Sweet Remembrance" and "Moist Wavings" foretell Reger at his most charming - all this, in 1877, when the younger composer was only four years old.

While Fata morgana doesn't lack for counterpoint, each number retains a modesty of form and utterance that never overwhelms. That leads us to one of the composer's less obvious virtues displayed for us in this new release: his balance between structure and content, and between theme and development. At a time when some of the best-known German-speaking composers had fixed upon the goal of monumentality in all forms, regardless of the suitability of their materials to this purpose, Draeseke kept his sense of proportion. The Romance and Adagio are good examples of this, as well. The former, in particular: it demonstrates an almost Italianate, operatic cantabile in the melody, along with a professionalism that refuses to follow well-worn paths, never descending to the clichéd or shoddy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the composer wrote them in 1885 around the time of the successful premiere of his opera, Gudrun, and the revision of his never-performed Herrat. But much the same praise can be handed out to the three pieces comprising Draeseke's Kleine Suite for English horn. Composed in 1911, they show all the thematic gracefulness and quiet distinction of the earlier pair of works.

I'm more curious than ever about the musical value of Draeseke's six operas, hearing these instrumental pieces in which the solo line sings with an almost vocal art. Somewhere among various enjoyable listening sessions spent with the symphonies, the chamber works for small groups of instruments, the piano music, and songs, it became clear to me that Draeseke was a more adaptable composer than many of his German contemporaries. He can storm and shake his fist at the heavens with the best of them, but also be lightly charming after a fashion that, it must be said, is not typically associated with German culture. His musical moods are more diverse than those of many of his contemporaries with well-defined Musical characters, and he finds distinctive thematic, harmonic, and orchestral ways of expressing the same emotion in different contexts.

This brings us to one of the musical forms enjoyed in 19th-century European culture that has fallen out of favor, the melodrama: a combination of narration with occasional chords designed to heighten the text, rather than supply a continuous background. (The melodrama actually has a much older pedigree; and some listeners may recall several past recordings of Marin Marais's Tableau de l'opération de la taille, a fascinating French Baroque melodrama of a gall bladder operation. But the 19th century saw the genre flourish as never before.) An enthusiastic Liszt arranged Draeseke's Helges Treue, originally for baritone and piano, for narrator, but the melodrama on this CD is the only one Draeseke ever actually composed. It aspires to High Romanticism under full sail:

Corsicans, release the harbor chains! All hope has disappeared!
Nowhere billows a sail for rescue! Surrender! Nurse your wounds!
Genoa, yours is forgotten! Peer from the fissures!
Search the sea. Strain your eyes! Nowhere, nowhere, Genoa's ships!

Through all 20 couplets, Draeseke is effective, never allowing the music to take the lead; though I admit to being curious what lie might have achieved if he'd at least placed these elements of text and music upon equal footing, creating a hybrid form more akin in structure to the Florentine Camerata's first operatic experiments. If anybody could have done it, Draeseke would have been a likely candidate. He binds form; it doesn't bind him.

Finally, this release includes a selection of 10 songs. As Alan Krueck points out in his excellent liner notes, they graft the expanded harmonic language and rhythmic subtleties of the late 19th century onto a foundation of Schumann and Mendelssohn-although I don't hear Mendelssohn as much as Schubert in the deceptive simplicity and direct communicativeness of the Drei Gesange (early works despite the late opus number). They are of a quality commensurate with everything else in this series, calling forth the question: how could a composer of such caliber as Draeseke completely vanish from our concert halls for so many years?

The performances are warmly involved and distinguished. Thomas Crome and Georg Lustig offer beauty of tone and phrasing, while Wolfgang Müller-Steinbach is both a sensitive accompanist, and a fine soloist with a discriminating sense of touch. Helmut Loos is theatrical yet controlled as the narrator in the melodrama, pacing his performance with great skill. I wish I could say as much for Ingrid Würtz, but this soprano's voice is tremulous and extremely breathy. While higher notes aren't always bad, the lower range is unsupported and a chore to hear. She also flattens her sibilants in a peculiar fashion that draws attention away from the music.

There's fortunately much else to enjoy on this release that doesn't require any excuse for the performances. Still, if I had to choose a get-acquainted CD for those unfamiliar with Draeseke's music, it would probably be AK/Coburg DR 0001, with its pair of viola sonatas, or DR 0003 [sic; correction: DR 0004], and its pair of relatively late quintets. (Listening samples of both, by the way, can be found at http://www.draeseke.org/discs/index.htm.) These two releases tell us what lyrical inspiration Draeseke could pour into ambitious forms. After that, you're on your own. There is much here in IDS's latest to furnish both immediate enjoyment and the kind of listening material one returns to for further insights.

AK/Coburg Draeseke Short Pieces DR 0005You can purchase it, and the earlier four, from the International Draeseke Society.... The cost is $15.00 for IDS/NA members, or $18.49 for non-members. (All checks should be made out to the IDS, rather than AK/Coburg.)*

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare 28:4 [March-April 2005] p. 75-77
Reprinted by permission of Fanfare Magazine.

*Note that current prices are $16.98 per compact disc ($12.50 for IDG/IDS Members) plus shipping; current address is International Draeseke Society/NA, Box 104, Sand Lake, NY 12153. Read Barry Brenesal's accompanying article on The International Draeseke Society and AK/Coburg.


Read more about these recordings at AK/Coburg.