Investigating Hans Rott

cover C5408

ROTT: Hamlet Overture (reconstructed by J. Schmidt). Suites in Bb & E. Orchestral Prelude in E. Prelude to “Julius Caesar.” Pastoral Prelude in F / Gürzenich Orchester Köln; Christopher Ward, cond / Capriccio C5408

For decades, we’ve been told that Gustav Mahler adored the music of his ill-fated younger colleague, Hans Rott (1858-1884), and that his loss to music was inestimable, but the only piece that has become a (sort of) visitor in the concert halls is his Symphony in E, which received its premiere in 1989. Now, we have a chance to judge him by a little more: two Suites, three orchestral Preludes and his Hamlet Overture as reconstructed by Johannes Volker Schmidt. The latter is, of course, a world premiere recording.

But to be honest with you, I’ve never cared much for Rott’s Symphony. It doesn’t sound so much like Mahler as it does like Bruckner, and I absolutely abhor Bruckner’s music. It’s long-winded, pompous, and doesn’t go anywhere; as one acquaintence put it to me, his symphonies are just “a succession of endings.” Only two conductors, Furtwängler and Kempe, were ever able to make anything out of Bruckner for my taste, and even then it’s not music I’ll listen to with any frequency.

The Hamlet Overture opens in much the same Brucknerian vein as his symphony, but about 2:20 into the piece it becomes livelier and gains somewhat more interest. Not a great amount of interest, mind you, but more than the symphony. And conductor Christopher Ward is surely involved emotionally in this music; he conducts it with drive and fervor. For me, it’s not quite as interesting as the concert overtures of Tchaikovsky or the orchestral tone poems of Strauss, but at certain moments, such as 4:45 into the piece, Rott suddenly veers left and gives us a glimpse into why Mahler liked him so. And we must remember that none of Rott’s pieces were ever given in concert during his brief lifetime; they were only played at the conservatory where both he and Mahler were pupils. The present overture, in fact, only existed in orchestral score for 35 bars. The rest had to be reconstructed from sketches and fragments, but enough survived to put the piece together, and it is a very good one.

RottThe Suite in E dates from two years later than the overture, in 1878 when the composer was only 20 years old. Yet one must understand that Rott’s composing career came to an end in 1880 when, aboard a train, he pulled out a gun and threatened to kill one of the passengers, claiming that Johannes Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was committed to a mental hospital in 1881, where after a brief recovery he sank into depression. Suffering from “hallucinatory insanity” and “persecution mania,” he never recovered and died of tuberculosis in June 1884, two months short of his 26th birthday. It’s a strange suite, again quite Bruckner-like in form and content, with brooding passages in the celli that are used a counterpoint and unexpected tympani outbursts. There’s also a sudden transposition at about 4:14 into the second movement.

The Prelude to “Julius Caesar,” written in 1877, is very clearly influenced by Wagner. This, too, is a good piece, with interesting turns of phrase and mood, some quite sudden. We must certainly cut Rott some slack considering that these are the works of a very young man with only a few years’ training in composition. He was clearly reaching for something new and different but never quite arrived where I am sure he thought he would be going. At 5:55, after a slow-down to a dead stop, the music suddenly picks up in both tempo and drama as Rott comes up with several good musical ideas that drive the piece to its conclusion.

The second orchestral suite is a bit lighter in character than the first (it was written two years later); Rott’s key changes here, though made quickly, are more sophisticated and less abrupt—except, as at 1:54 into the piece, when Rott is trying to make a point. The second movement is, surprisingly enough, a scherzo and a good one at that.

The Pastorale Prelude in F, one of his last scores (1880), is the longest piece on this album. It’s also, according to the notes, a rare example of Rott coming up with musical ideas much earlier (1877) and developing the piece over time. The liner notes by Christian Heindl suggest that this piece in particular shows a more sophisticated composer who works his material in a better and more thoughtful manner than his earlier pieces. This is so to a point, but I missed the spontaneity of the Julius Caesar Overture or the second Suite. In this work, however, one can hear Rott’s influence on Mahler’s orchestration, and in the trumpet calls an allusion to the younger composer’s Third Symphony. At 9:13, however, atfer a loud orchestral chord, Rott suddenly gives us a fugue which he runs out to the end of the piece, changing keys abruptly around 10:25. The piece ends in a triumphant orchestral explosion—another unexpected touch.

The pieces on this album are interesting but by no means an indication of genius in full flower. Rott developed less fully than, say, Lili Boulanger, to name another outstanding composer who died young yet left us some truly inspired pieces, though one must remember that Boulanger did not suffer insanity and continued to compose almost until age 25 whereas Rott had to stop at age 22. Let us say that they show promise for one so young; he was clearly striking out on a new path, but hadn’t gotten very far before he had to stop. Yet the music is interesting for what it is, which are first-rate late-Romantic student scores. Rott was undoubtedly an early influence on Mahler, but it was Mahler who took his ideas and ran with them into musical realms hitherto unsuspected.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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