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Hans ROTT (1858-1884) 
Orchestral Works Volume 2
Symphony No 1 in E major (1878-1880) [53.31]
Symphony for String Orchestra in A-flat major (1874-5) [14.30]
Symphonic Movement in E major (1878) [9.04]
Gürzenich Orchestra Köln/Christopher Ward
rec. 27-28 & 31 January 2020, Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne
CAPRICCIO C5414 [77.06]

Who is this mysterious Hans Rott? Perhaps he is not mysterious to you, but for me this was my first encounter and I feel very positive about the whole experience. Capriccio is well known for finding interesting and rare repertoire from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A brief search of the catalogue reveals that eleven of his works are available on CD and that there are, amazingly, eight versions of the E major symphony, so I seem to be a little off the Rott pace. I’ll attempt to put things right.

The fact that Gustav Mahler described him as “the founder of the new symphony as I understand it” makes one sit up. In addition, the work was written when Rott was a mere twenty or so years young, so what a tragedy that he only had a handful of years left. He was incarcerated for the last years of his short life, which came to a sad end, and which I won’t go into now, but what might he have achieved had he lived longer?

Volume 1 in this series, with the same orchestra and conductor, concentrated on overtures, preludes and some suites; now we have the meaty stuff.  You might, though, like to listen first to the Symphonic Movement in E major, the last track on the disc. The excellent booklet essay by Christian Heindl seems to imply that this was nothing more than a student exercise, and that it was the first draft, in a sense, of the real first movement of the symphony, but it can stand on its own and presages the sort of music that the vast canvas of the full symphony will present. The Bruckner of the 4th Symphony is there somewhere and I found myself thinking of the much later Franz Schmidt’s 1st Symphony (1896).

However, before going into the symphony in more detail, one should next listen to the Symphony for String orchestra. This is a three-movement work and was composed by our precocious sixteen-year-old. It may well not be complete, as possible sketches for a finale have been discovered in the family archive. The first movement is Mendelssohnian and in a clear sonata form - very late classical. The marking is Allegro con fuoco but this performance seems, perhaps, to have overlooked the fire. The Grave e largo however appears to have a slight Wagnerian influence, shades of things to come. The memorably playful third movement is a Scherzo and Trio and I found myself thinking of the Dvorak Serenade for Strings. It makes a happy finale and one doesn’t feel that the work is entirely unfulfilled.

So now you are prepared to face the considerable length of Rott’s Symphony. It seems to me that there is a problem with the balance of the overall composition, the finale being more than three times longer than the first movement. Undoubtedly Bruckner’s influence lies behind the monumentality of the Adagio second movement but it is much shorter than a Bruckner Adagio. Indeed, it is as succinct in utterance as the first, a happy revision of the symphonic movement mentioned above. The composer grew in confidence as he worked, and now arrived at the Scherzo marked, unusually, ‘Frisch und lebhaft’ (fresh and lively). Bruckner seems to eyeball the devil in his scherzo; contrastingly, Rott’s strong optimism encountered throughout, shines forth. You can hear why Mahler held this work in such high regard. The form is really a Scherzo with two ‘trios’, the first one full of that calm, Mahlerian nature music we find in, say, his 4th Symphony.

Even more Mahlerian in my view, is the finale. Its opening pages display some fine horn writing resulting in the conjuring up of wide-open, mountainous spaces. These passages are contrasted and even placed alongside other passages of gentle, chamber music type scoring despite the large orchestra. The brass writing and the technique of doubling more than usual the bass line(s) are Brucknerian. This music is mostly miles away from the Brahms that so scared and obsessed Rott, yet beginning about four minutes in, there is a long lyrical passage, initially for strings, which builds to a profound climax and which could be from the same stable as the finale of Brahms’ 1st Symphony.  Rott’s movement has its own fervent sense of direction and purpose. The orchestration is vivid and commanding. This is an incredibly dramatic and powerful movement which could be a symphony all on its own and for me therein lies the problem. However, if I have been able to convey to you anything of how extraordinary it has been to discover this music then I will be halfway towards the describing the reality of its impact.

Christopher Ward is a young and ambitious conductor who already has a burgeoning CV, especially in opera. I hope that he continues also to tackle rare repertoire like this, as, on the whole, he has delved deep inside the character and style of this composer and I’m sure, with the help of such a fine orchestra as the Gürzenich he can do so again.

Incidentally, I haven’t been able to work out the significance of the ironclad maiden on the front cover looking like a glamorous beauty from another planet. The booklet has photographs, and the aforementioned essay, and the recording is perhaps a little congested at climaxes but otherwise vivid and immediate.

Gary Higginson

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