Monday, July 28, 2014

Draeseke - Piano Concerto In E-flat Major

While Felix Draeseke was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory his ardent admiration of the music of Richard Wagner shook up the conservative establishment of the school. He ended up leaving the conservatory in 1855 and in 1857 wrote essays on the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. Draeseke defended Liszt's music with fervor and courage, but his was not merely an empty advocacy. He addressed many of the charges against Liszt directly with the knowledge and ability that a modern musicologist would. His essays about Liszt and his music are some of the most definitive ones ever written until the 20th century. Liszt met him, took an interest in his music and expressed his gratitude for the essays. They remained friends until Liszt's death in 1886.

Draeseke's admiration for Wagner evidently was not reciprocated by Wagner, who detested Draeseke's music. Wagner did spend some time with Draeseke (at the request of Liszt) and came to like him as a man while still disliking his music. After Draeseke moved to Dresden in 1876 he slowly lost interest in the New Music of Wagner. Before that he had already disapproved strongly to Wagner the man after Wagner and Liszt's daughter Cosima began living together (she was still married to Hans von Bülow at the time).  Draeseke  gradually became more conservative while in Dresden, so much so that after Liszt heard some of his current compositions remarked that "It seems our lion has turned into a rabbit." His only piano concerto was written in 1885-1886. It was premiered in June of 1886 with Liszt attending. It was the last time the two friends would meet as Liszt died six weeks later.

The concerto has the traditional three movement structure:

I. Allegro moderato -  The main theme of the movement is played straight away by the orchestra. The soloist interrupts the theme with octave runs up the keyboard. The soloist then plays a short cadenza. The theme returns in the orchestra, as well as the soloist's octave runs followed by another short cadenza. This theme accounts for much of the movement's material, as Draeseke uses Liszt's thematic transformation technique.  Orchestra and soloist explore the theme at length until a brilliant coda ends the movement.

II. Adagio -  The piano plays an extended solo that begins with a long theme that resembles a hymn. An interlude follows for muted strings. The piano then begins a set of variations on the hymn theme as the cellos and double basses add a very subtle accompaniment. The second variation is marked scherzando as cellos and basses play pizzicato along with occasional coloring by the woodwinds. The third variation has the orchestra play the theme with interrupting comments by the soloist. There is then a section for soloist and orchestra that is more of an interlude than a variation which leads to an extended interlude for solo piano. This leads to the next variation proper of the theme, again by the piano playing solo. The orchestra enters and continues playing this variation as the piano plays a rippling accompaniment. The piano plays a short lead in to the next variation where Draeseke shows his orchestrating skill and feeling for tonal color as he  divides first and second violins and has them play the theme and light contrapuntal accompaniment while the piano plays pianissimo three note figures high in the piano's register. This variation proceeds with magical effect until the piano plays a short cadenza that leads to the peaceful close of the movement. 

III. Allegro molto vivace -  A loud, powerful outburst from the orchestra and soloist begins the final movement. After the piano plays a short solo, the orchestra joins the piano in the initial statement of the main theme. The second theme that maintains the dance-like atmosphere is heard in the piano and taken up by the orchestra. These two themes also adhere to the thematic transformation technique as they are thoroughly explored in the movement. The feeling of constant movement, sometimes to the point of  massive rushing, is finally resolved in a brilliant ending that is drenched in the home key of E-flat major.

Draeseke's music was popular during his lifetime and at one point he was held as an equal to Brahms as a symphonist.  He composed for the rest of his life. He had ongoing serious ear infections for most of his life and spent the last two years of his life almost totally deaf. He died in 1913 at the age of 77.

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