Tuesday, March 28, 2023

concert review: California Symphony

Sometimes I come across, on recordings or just as a written reference to it, to an obscure work that I'd like to, but doubt I ever will, hear performed live. Sometimes the opportunity to hear one of these works live does arrive. Results usually range from good to disappointing.

But last weekend I heard the Symphony in E by Hans Rott. It's not a masterpiece, and I'm not recommending it to anyone beyond mad symphony collectors like myself, but I was thrilled. As a performance, it was everything I could have wished for. It just brought the whole thing to vivid life.

And I reviewed it, so my satisfaction was complete. Lisa Iron Tongue hated it, but the difference is: she had not heard it before; I knew the piece from recordings, I knew its flaws and virtues, I knew what to expect.

Hans Rott was Gustav Mahler's roommate at conservatory. They were friends, and when Mahler saw this rather revolutionary, on-beyond-Bruckner (Bruckner was Rott's teacher) symphony, he said that was the kind of symphony he wanted to write. And he did: it fits as a template over Mahler's First, composed eight years later.

But what about Rott? When he completed this symphony he was only 21, and it was promising enough that a career as a great composer could be expected. But then he became mentally ill and died at 25. And that's why you've never heard of him. If Mahler, who was two years Rott's junior, had died at 25, few would have heard of him today either, as at that time his only compositions to have survived were a fragmentary piano quartet, the first version of Das klagende Lied, and a few songs.

Most composers who died young that you've heard of were prodigies, like Schubert. But most composers developed more slowly, like Mahler. Or Beethoven. How many potentially great composers died young and are forgotten? Among those who left a trace of themselves as symphonists, there's Rott. There's Norbert Burgmüller (26), a friend of Schumann's. There's Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (an unbelievable 19), the greatest Basque composer before Ravel, 1820s. If you count her Military Sinfonietta, there's Vítězslava Kaprálová (25), 1930s. I collect composers like these, and that's what I was doing with Rott. I've heard Arriaga's symphony live, but until now, none of the others.


  1. I'm reliably advised that Hrusa's recording makes a good case for the Rott. It was pretty clear to me that it can be better than the California Symphony performance made it sound.

    1. I haven't heard Hrusa's recording, though I can well believe he'd do well - it's Bamberg, who are reliable in this sort of music. I learned the Rott from Gerhard Samuel's, which you might consider a hazardous proposition.
      Nevertheless, despite technical problems (mostly the composer's fault, not the performers'), I thought Saturday's a wonderfully committed, even compelling performance. Perhaps by Sunday, when you went, they were tired out of it.

    2. Sunday was committed as well. What I heard were phrases that just sat there; a different conductor would have shaped them differently and given them more life.