By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: