Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony in E
Catherine Rückwardt, cond; Mainz State Theater PO
ACOUSENCE 20104 (56: 14) Live: 3/4–6/2004
Hans Rott’s serio-comic story has been told before, but I love recounting it, and for the few who may not have heard it, it’s worth the retelling. Hans Rott (1858–1884) was born in a suburb of Vienna, briefly roomed with Mahler while a student at the Conservatory, and studied organ with Bruckner. Then, in 1880, the 22-year-old Rott had the misfortune to run afoul of Brahms, when he showed his
completed E-Major Symphony to the elder composer in the hope of securing a performance. Brahms was not one to mince words when it came to criticizing what he regarded as musical mediocrity; only, in this case, Brahms’s words were especially harsh and hurtful. He told Rott that he had no talent and that for his own good he ought to abandon any thought of a career in music while he was still young enough to pursue some other line of work.
Brahms was not the first or only one to heap scorn on Rott’s Symphony. The jury, judging a composition contest in which Rott had entered his score, reportedly began laughing out loud when they heard it, and ridiculed the young composer mercilessly; and that was
Rott took his manuscript to Brahms and Hans Richter. The rejection of Rott’s Symphony by Brahms, Richter, and others, should not be taken as entirely legitimate criticism based purely on artistic merit. Brahms and his close-knit circle were not above the musical politics of the day. As a student of Bruckner, friend of Mahler, and admirer of Wagner, Rott was foolish to think he would be well received by Brahms, hardly a fan of the very composers with whom Rott consorted, and by whom he was strongly influenced. But whether Rott’s E-Major Symphony is a piece of worthless trash or a work of genius, as Bruckner maintained, it hardly sounds like the incoherent ramblings of a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Unfortunately, what Brahms didn’t know, and couldn’t have, was that Rott was already certifiably insane and a ticking time bomb; and soon enough the explosion would come. Later that same year, traveling to Mühlhausen by train, Rott had to be physically restrained and forcibly removed from his carriage after pulling a pistol on a fellow passenger who was trying to light a cigar. In his delusional state, Rott claimed that Brahms had planted dynamite on the train to blow it up, and that he, Rott, was actually saving everyone aboard from being killed. “He was collected by medical orderlies,” as the album note euphemistically describes the arrival of the men in white coats with butterfly nets who came to cart Rott off to the nearest asylum for the mentally disturbed, where he died in 1884 at the tender age of 26. Today, of course, his illness would be treatable with medication, but whether there’s a miracle drug to treat lack of talent, I can’t say. It seems that no one thought much of Rott’s abilities other than his organ teacher, Bruckner, and his one-time fellow student and roomie, Mahler.
Rott and his Symphony were largely forgotten, until 1989, when Gerhard Samuel and the Cincinnati Philharmonia recorded the work for Hyperion in a performing edition prepared by Paul Banks. A surprising number of recordings followed—Leif Segerstam leading the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra for BIS, Sebastian Weigle leading the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra for Arte Nova, Dennis Russell Davies leading the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra for CPO, Paavo Järvi leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for RCA, and now this latest entry from Catherine Rückwardt leading the Mainz State Theater Philharmonic for Acousence. This is not the first time, by the way, that Acousence, has turned its attention to Rott. In collaboration with the International Hans Rott Society, the German label produced a CD in 2004 of the composer’s C-Minor String Quartet, performed by the Mainz String Quartet, coupled with Rott’s String Symphony in A? Major, performed by the Mainz State Theater Philharmonic, the same ensemble as on the present CD, led by Enrico Delamboye.
As has been noted on more than one occasion in the past, timing can be the enemy of new releases, and that may be the case with regard to the one at hand. Mentioned above in the list of recordings of Rott’s symphonies is the one on RCA with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. That recording appeared on the market in June 2012, and was reviewed by Peter Rabinowitz as recently as 36:4. I refer you to Peter’s review, by the way, for a very fine description and analysis of the Symphony, one which I’m unable to add to and unlikely to better. Peter was pleased with Järvi’s account, preferring it to Segerstam’s “weighty and Brucknerian version.”
However, I already had the Samuel and Davies discs in my collection, and as favorably disposed as Peter was to the new Järvi, I wasn’t motivated enough to purchase a third version of a Symphony I would probably listen to once every leap century. If I had acquired it, I’d now have four recordings of the work, counting this one from Rückwardt and her Mainz ensemble. Moreover, this recording is not new; it was taken from live performances in 2004, predating Järvi’s RCA recording by at least eight years. Järvi’s CD has something else to recommend it as well, the inclusion of two movements of a planned suite by Rott as filler, a welcome addition to the discography of a composer who composed so little. Davies’s CPO disc also includes a filler in the form of Rott’s
, but neither Samuel’s Hyperion CD nor the present Rückwardt Acousence release contains anything other than the Symphony. Pushing an hour in length, the Symphony may be sufficient, so I won’t accuse Hyperion or Acousence of being ungenerous.
As stated, though I don’t have the Järvi and haven’t heard it, nor for that matter the Segerstam to which Peter compared the Järvi, I was able to find the timings for both online, so here is a comparison of the five versions.
The timings certainly bear out Peter’s comment about Segerstam’s “weighty and Brucknerian version.” In fact, at first I thought that iTunes’ timings were a mistake, so I checked another source, allmusic.com, and it adds an extra second to each of the first three movements. How on earth, I wondered, could Segerstam add over 10 minutes to the shortest timing here, which is Järvi’s? Is it possible that he led the work using a different edition, one perhaps that opened up one or more cuts? Since I don’t have either the Segerstam or the Järvi, I’ll have to defer to Peter for the answer. Meanwhile, between the three versions I do have—Samuel, Davies, and now Rückwardt—there’s less of a discrepancy, with Rückwardt seeming to find a pace that splits the difference between Samuel and Davies.
I, too, like the Samuel recording—Peter spoke well of it—but it was the Symphony’s first ever recording and, according to the album note, there were some questions about the performing edition, which was based on Rott’s incomplete autograph score. But more importantly, Samuel was pioneering a work in 1989 that had not been heard before; therefore, no performing tradition existed, leaving him no guide other than his own musical instincts and knowledge of Rott’s historical and cultural milieu.
By the time Dennis Russell Davies got around to recording the work for CPO in 1998, presumably any editorial questions had been resolved—unfortunately, the booklet note mentions nothing about the performing edition—and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra feels a bit more sure-fingered in its execution.
That brings us to this “new” recording by Rückwardt and the Mainz State Theater Philharmonic, which, just to remind you, is not new, having been originally recorded in 2004. Rückwardt’s orchestra plays beautifully for her. The “Brucknerian” horns are haloed by a golden corona, and the strings are suffused with a sense of rapture. Much of the difference, I think, between Rückwardt’s and Davies’s performances, which, as you can see from the above timings table, are quite close, stems not from interpretive variances but from the acoustic spaces in which they were recorded, and by the recordings themselves.
Davies’s sound is brighter and more forward, tending to favor the higher winds, especially the flutes. Rückwardt’s sound is further back, giving the perspective of a center seat midway back in the hall, and mellower, tending to favor the midrange of the violas, cellos, and brass. It’s a sound I prefer, and one that strikes me as better suited to Rott’s score, which, in Rückwardt’s reading has more in common with Bruckner than it has with Mahler.
Of the three I’m able to speak to—Samuel, Davies, and Rückwardt—I’d put my money on this latest arrival by Rückwardt. Though I haven’t heard the Segerstam or the Järvi, I would tend to discount Segerstam based on his unorthodox timings. That leaves Paavo Järvi, whose work in other repertoire has impressed me very favorably, so I would expect Rabinowitz’s endorsement of Järvi’s recording to be fully justified.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony in E major by Hans Rott
Written: 1878; Vienna, Austria
Venue: Staatstheater Mainz
Length: 55 Minutes 32 Secs.
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