Examples of composers who did not live long enough to fulfil their early promise are dotted throughout music history, and his admirers would no doubt claim that Hans Rott was one of those figures. Rott was born in Vienna in 1858, but by 1880 he was already beginning to show signs of a mental collapse; he was committed to an asylum the following year, where he died of tuberculosis four years later. Among those who attended his funeral were Bruckner, who had been his organ teacher at the Vienna Conservatoire, and Mahler, with whom Rott had briefly shared lodgings when they were both students; Mahler in particular thought extremely highly of his friend, declaring him “a musician of genius … who died on the very threshold of his career” and “the founder of the new symphony as I myself understand it”.
Yet it has been Rott’s likely influence on Mahler’s music rather than the intrinsic quality of his own works that has attracted more attention, particularly since Rott’s First Symphony, which he completed in 1880, was performed for the first time in 1989. Rott has sometimes been seen as the “missing link” between Bruckner and Mahler, and there have even been accusations of plagiarism against the latter and claims that he refused to conduct Rott’s symphony because of his feelings of guilt.
All of which might make a more persuasive argument had Rott’s work been more consistently impressive. It’s difficult to separate the music from what one knows of its composer’s tragic life, but even in as obviously a committed and finely played and paced performance as this latest recording from Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg orchestra, the symphony seems an uneven and flawed work, with unmemorable thematic material that’s often laboriously worked out. There are some startling moments certainly, but many more longueurs. The connections between Rott’s E major work and his more famous contemporary’s early works are certainly there – Rott’s third-movement scherzo could indeed pass for early Mahler – but rather than anticipating what was come, much more of Rott’s work looks back rather than forwards – to Wagner in his first movement and to Brahms in the overlong finale.
Appropriately Hrůša fills out his disc with odd movements by Mahler and Bruckner. Blumine, which Mahler originally intended as the andante second movement of his First Symphony, is familiar enough, but Bruckner’s Symphonic Prelude, is still almost completely unknown. A compressed, rather withdrawn sonata form, it dates from 1876, when Bruckner was beginning work on his Fifth Symphony, but for many years it was thought to have been composed by either Mahler or Rott, until it was finally published under Bruckner’s name last year. Whether originally intended as part of a symphony, or as a free-standing piece, will never be known, but it’s an intriguing oddity on a disc that has clearly been put together very thoughtfully.