"I was about 19 years old when I saw it for sale," says Alan Krueck, executive producer of the Felix Draeseke Society recordings. "It was in 1958. Urania has gotten hold of the recording from the Third Reich of Draeseke's Symphonia Tragica. I was into Bruckner and Brahms, and it sounded like something I'd find interesting. I must say, though, I worried whether I'd wasted a dollar.
"Then I listened to it repeatedly, and gradually grew very interested. Things began to fall into place. It was the Bruckner Eighth, the Brahms Fourth, the Franck D-Minor. Draeseke was doing all these things that everybody else did later and has gotten credit for." Many lives and careers resemble sly landscapes, features subtly altering as one moves ever forward; but some are not like that. They have their defining moments. Arguably, this introduction to Draeseke's music was one for Alan Krueck, who ended up doing his doctoral dissertation on all the composer's symphonies at the University of Zurich.
Over the years. Krueck's enthusiasm for the music of Draeseke never diminished. A non-performer, he saw it as his role to interest music-making friends and acquaintances in the neglected composer from Coburg. "At one point I got the Pittsburgh String Quartet, whose members were drawn from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, to give a performance of Draeseke's first string quartet," Krueck says with obvious pleasure. He has also suggested that well-funded recording companies take up the cause of the nearly forgotten composer, but without much success due to marketing considerations. "The recording industry is not sympathetic to such interests. I've become very depressed by the people who form management. The terrible thing happening to classical music today is that they're selling performers, not music. Yo-Yo Ma is going to play; what's he going to play - who cares? But at least younger people are beginning to respond to offbeat composers like Draeseke."
The greatest center of current scholarly interest in Draeseke is, not surprisingly, Germany. "The International Draeseke Gesellschaft (IDG) was founded in 1986 as a replacement for the Felix Draeseke Gesellschaft of the Third Reich. The city of Coburg reinstated some cultural funding to support this activity, and an insurance company has consistently awarded funds for IDG activities. IDG maintains an annual membership fee of 25 Euros, which helps to keep it financially steady.
"I founded the International Draeseke Society of North America (IDS/NA) as a branch of the IDG in 1993," says Krueck, "and there was an initial private grant of $25,000 to be used exclusively for aural and visual publications. I should emphasize that our AK/Coburg label is not a commercial CD firm. It is and always has been part of the services of the IDS/NA, and is a non-profit organization, just like the publications of the Gudrun Verlag Veröffentlichungen der Internationalen Draeseke Gesellschaft. All money earned from any of these services goes into one account. No person gets any of it, except for the performers who are paid a flat sum for their services."
Record producers seldom badmouth their own stable of musicians. That way lies madness, and insolvency. But I acquired the feeling from Krueck's comments during our interviews that there's a genuinely abiding respect for the musicians heard on the Draeseke Society recordings. "Wolfgang Müller -Steinbach has been central to IDG planning from the very start. An established composer himself, he has had a lifelong devotion to Draeseke that started when, as a soloist, he discovered Draeseke's incredible and only piano sonata back in the 1970s. I was convinced of Müller-Steinbach's insight and understanding of Draeseke during the 1996 meeting of the IDG, where he brought a sextet for winds performing his transcriptions of some Draeseke piano pieces. Ordinarily, I view transcriptions with a patronizing eye, but after hearing what he had done to illuminate the piano pieces, I stood in awe and appreciation. Draeseke's piano works had always been of lesser interest to me, probably because most pianists who played them performed vertically, with no attention to the inner lines connecting chords and voices. That's what Müller-Steinbach brought out in the six instruments, and that approach illuminates the piano pieces he has recorded for AK/Coburg.
"When he and Barbara Thiem met, they really clicked because they understood what Draeseke was all about, that his is a truly individual voice and owes little to his older mentors Liszt and Wagner - and absolutely nothing to contemporaries like Brahms or Bruckner. A terrible thought to contemplate if you worship at the Dahlhaus 19th-century altar.
"Many others who have recorded Draeseke for us have also done so splendidly, particularly Acantus/Magdeburg with their stunning readings of Draeseke's two string quintets. But many have ceased concertizing, like Sciannameo, who recorded the Viola sonatas, or concertize very little these days, like Acantus. When AK/Coburg started, we also wanted to emphasize ‘International' in the Draeseke Society and we think we've done pretty well in our engineering teams. We've used Riccardo Schulz at Carnegie Mellon University, Teij van Geest Studios in Bietigheim, Germany, and an independent Icelandic engineer headquartered in Hannover."
Despite the involvement of reasonable pride and laudable involvement of Coburg in funding the IDG, the Society's releases have sold best in the United States. According to Krueck, "That's because they are supported by sophisticated retailers: Records International, Gary Thal Music, local Barnes and Noble and local Borders. AK/Coburg handles its own distribution, and this consideration is why sales in Europe are perhaps behind those in the US. That's where Records International and Gary Thal have been very helpful in handling many non-US orders. The best seller of our CDs to date is Barbara Thiem and Wolfgang Müller-Steinbach in the Draeseke cello works (DR 0002), in large part because of their concertizing with the works.
"So far, there has been enough recouping of production costs to enable production of DR 0005, and pretty much guarantee the specialty disc DR 0010 for next year of a salute to the acoustical engineer and designer of musical instruments, Alfred Stelzner. This will feature the all-Stelzner ensemble of Barbara Thiem and her Summit Chamber Players from last year in Houston, and will include one of the prize-winning works of which Draeseke was a judge for the Stelzner competition of 1897, a string sextet by Arnold Krug. It features both the violotta and cellone, two of Stelzner's more adventuresome string-instrument designs, and almost impossible to find today. Thereafter, one would hope for enough recouping to record the string quartets and suite for two violins of Draeseke. Though if some commercial company, such as cpo, MDG, or Hyperion, would like to do the job, bravo!"
Those interested in joining the IDS/NA can do so on their Web site, at www.draeseke.org. The annual membership fee is $25.00.
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.
The 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'op é ration 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 - Web 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.
You 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.)
Fanfare 28:4 [March-April 2005] p. 74-77
Reprinted by permission of Fanfare Magazine.
* Note current prices are $16.98 per compact disc ($12.50 for IDG/S Members) plus shipping; current address is: International Draeseke Society/NA, Box 104, Sand Lake, NY 12153. They are also available from Records International.
Read more about these recordings at AK/Coburg.