Rott: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Symphony No. 1; Symphony for Strings; Symphonic Movement. Christopher Ward, Gurzenich Orchester Koln. Capriccio C5414.

By John J. Puccio

I can’t help thinking when I hear the name of Austrian composer Hans Rott ((1858-1884) of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. In the movie, Cary Grant plays a business executive named Roger Thornhill. When the heroine sees his initials as “ROT,” she asks him what the “O” stands. “Nothing,” he replies.

It reminds me that there have been quite a few composers over the years whose names once meant something but have now faded into obscurity, into nothingness. Such was the fate of Hans Rott. He was a contemporary of and fellow student with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Conservatory (they even roomed together for a short time). As a composer, Rott wrote only a few pieces of music, then went mad and died young. After writing his Symphony No. 1 in 1880 Rott tried pressing it on Brahms and Bruckner, but had no success. Brahms even became annoyed with Rott’s pushiness (and possibly with some of the symphony’s content, which he thought 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 now largely forgotten.

None of this would be of any concern to us today if nobody had rediscovered his First Symphony and re-evaluated it. It seems scholars have taken notice of the fact that it bears striking resemblances to the work of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Wagner, and Mahler. The trouble with the Mahler connection, though, is that Rott wrote his symphony in 1880, predating Mahler’s First Symphony by some half a dozen years. If anything, Rott may have influenced Mahler, who knew Rott and openly appreciated his work.

Be that as it may, modern listeners will draw their own conclusions about Rott after listening to his music. The Symphony No. 1 does remind me a bit of Schumann in the opening, Wagner in some of bigger, grander passages, Brahms in the Finale, and maybe a little of Mahler as things go along. When you listen to the third-movement Scherzo, you would, indeed, swear it could have been Mahler, the similarities seeming much too obvious to be mere coincidence. Clearly, one of the two men influenced the other, but it may take a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot to figure out who mostly influenced whom.

Whatever the case, the Symphony No. 1 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.

Maestro Christopher Ward and the Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne give the symphony their best, perhaps even drawing out comparisons with other composers more than most. The symphony begins quietly, much like Mahler’s First, though with both a Wagnerian and Schumann-like flavor. Then, by the time the first movement gets moving, we hear a touch of Brahms. The slow second movement Adagio seems more appealing at its outset than it does in its development. Maestro Ward lends it a lyrical touch throughout, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Fortunately, we are rescued by the Scherzo, a jolly affair that must have impressed Mahler, since Mahler used the idea in several of his own quirky, ironic, sardonic movements. Ward does a good job realizing the humor and idiosyncrasies of the piece. Then the symphony culminates in a lengthy grand finale with which Ward takes his time; maybe too much so because it appears to go on forever with a good deal of pomp and presumption. Anyway, the Symphony No. 1 turned out to be Rott’s first and only symphony, so we can just wonder what he might have produced had he lived.

Accompanying the symphony is a much-earlier work, the incomplete Symphony for String Orchestra (1874-75). This is a more conventional piece and harks back to an earlier Romantic style, early Beethoven or late Mozart perhaps. It exhibits a youthful enthusiasm in its opening movement; a kind of Mendelssohn or Schubert melancholy in its central Largo; and a joyful fervor in its third and final movement Scherzo. Among Rott’s notes, scholars have found sketches for a finale but nothing complete enough to reconstruct.

The last item on the program is the world première of a Symphonic Movement by Rott, a first-draft of the first movement of his Symphony No. 1. While I’m not sure the final version was an improvement, Maestro Ward does his best to provide it a proper gravitas. By this time, you may be getting used to the music and rather enjoying it. It’s worth a listen.

More good news: The folks at Capriccio have provided the disc with some beautiful artwork on the cover of the insert booklet, the back of the booklet, and the inside of the keep case. What’s more, they provide a handsome slipcover for the case, if you have a use for such things.

Producer Johannes Kernmayer and engineer Sebastian Nattkemper recorded the music at Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne, Germany in January 2020. Absolute transparency is not the album’s strong suite, but naturalness is. At first it sounds fairly ordinary, and then you realize it sounds pretty much as a real orchestra would sound in a concert hall from a moderate distance. The stereo spread is also realistic, with a decent amount of orchestral depth. Dynamic range, impact, and frequency extremes are adequate, too. Balance is a tad sharp in the upper midrange, though. Like the music, the sound is not a show-stopper but pleasant in the moment.

JJP

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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa