Rott: Symphony in E major (CD review)

Also, Pastorales Vorspiel. Dennis Russell Davies, Radio Symphonieorchester Wien. CPO 999 854-2.

The classical music world, like any other, can be pretty freakish sometimes. Take, for instance, the case of Austrian composer and organist Hans Rott (1858-1884). He was a contemporary of and fellow student with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Conservatory (they even roomed together for a short time), but how many people know that? As a composer, Rott wrote only a couple of pieces of music, then went mad and died young. After writing his Symphony in E in 1880 Rott tried pressing it on Brahms and Bruckner, but to no avail. Brahms even became annoyed with Rott's pushiness (and possibly with some of the symphony's content, which mimicked his own work), telling him he had no talent whatsoever. As a result of these and other obstacles in his life, Rott became depressed, delusional, hostile, and dangerous. The state locked him up in a mental institution while he was in his early twenties, and he died there several years later, both the man and his music largely forgotten.

Now, none of this would be of any concern to us today if nobody had rediscovered his Symphony in E just a few years back and re-evaluated it. It seems scholars took notice of the fact that it bears striking resemblances to the work of Brahms, Schumann, and Wagner, but, more important, to Mahler. The trouble is, however, Rott's piece predates most of Mahler's work (Rott wrote his Symphony in E more than half a dozen years before Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 1). The immediate conclusion reached by some musicologists, therefore, was that Mahler, who knew and openly appreciated Rott's work, may have stolen from him. Wouldn't that be something?

Modern listeners are welcome to draw their own conclusions after listening to Rott's symphony. It does remind one a bit of Schumann in the opening, Wagner in some of bigger, grander passages, and Brahms in the Finale. Then, when you listen to the third-movement Scherzo, you would, indeed, swear it was Mahler; the similarities being much too obvious to have been mere coincidence. Clearly, one of the two men influenced the other. But it may take a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot to figure out who most influenced whom.

Whatever the case, the Symphony in E is filled with intriguing, atmospheric, and pleasurable (if not all that memorable) passages, interesting in spite their similarities to the work of the aforementioned composers. In the end, for me the symphony sounds too much like a pastiche, and not the very best at that. Yet I did like that bizarre Scherzo and the overall Romanticism of the piece. And in particular I liked the conducting of Dennis Russell Davies and the musicianship of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. I figure if they couldn't do any more with the work, nobody could.

The disc's coupling, the Pastorale Vorspiel, interested me even less and, in fact, almost put me to sleep. Rott didn't call the piece a "pastorale" for nothing. Then again, maybe it was the sonics on this 2002 release that bored me, sonics I found wispy and vague and never particularly vibrant or alive despite an enormous dynamic range. The imaging is fine, and there's even a modicum of depth to the orchestra, but it's such bland sound I kept wanting to turn the volume up just to help bring it to life; then, when I did, the loudest passages were, of course, too loud.

Anyway, the album makes an interesting historical document, although, again for me, not an especially rewarding musical experience.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa