Hans Rott, whose once-obscure Symphony in E major received its Chicago-area premiere by the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra on Sunday at Sheely Center for the Performing Arts in Northbrook, was one of the saddest cases of unfulfilled promise in music history.
Born in 1858, the Austrian composer studied organ with Anton Bruckner and was a classmate of Gustav Mahler's at the Vienna Conservatory. Both composers held Rott in high esteem, but Bruckner's strong support failed to impress a jury to which Rott had submitted a movement from his symphony for a possible award. Johannes Brahms was a jury member, and when Rott later approached him to seek his help in getting the full symphony performed, he was rebuffed a second time.
So deeply was the young composer hurt that something snapped. While traveling by train to the German town of Muhlhausen to take up a post as organist, Rott pulled a revolver on a fellow passenger who was lighting a cigar, apparently convinced he was conspiring with Brahms to blow up the train. Rott later was committed to a mental hospital where his health rapidly deteriorated. After destroying many of his manuscripts, he died in 1884, short of his 26th birthday.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the manuscript of Rott's First Symphony was unearthed at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Public performances and two recordings ensued. The hour-long symphony struck many musicians, including Lawrence Rapchak, the Northbrook Symphony's music director, as a revelation. Rapchak wasted no time making the work the centerpiece of his enterprising, three-year cycle of forgotten late-Romantic symphonies, "In Mahler's Shadow."
Mahler's shadow does indeed loom large over the 1880 composition; so does the influence of Bruckner, Wagner and Brahms. But the really fascinating thing about the E-major symphony is how much of that work crept into the first three symphonies of Mahler. Mind you, none of those works were begun until after 1884, the year of Rott's death. Mahler, who was two years Rott's junior, certainly knew the E-major symphony, having played a piano version of it and extolled it as a work of "genius."
Rapchak offered side-by-side musical comparisons in the course of his pre-performance remarks to the audience. Particularly striking was the close resemblance of the Scherzo of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony to the corresponding Scherzo in the Rott symphony. Just as uncanny is Mahler's recollection of the nature-sounds that open Rott's epic finale, in the beginning of the younger composer's First Symphony.
The "borrowings" seem too close to have been unconscious. But scholars and musicians have gone easy on Mahler, allowing that Rott's college classmate completed what Rott did not live long enough to realize. Clearly the young Mahler assimilated what he needed of Rott's ideas and took them in his own stylistic directions. Today we can only wonder what Rott might have achieved had his career not ended so early.
Technically and musically, the Rott symphony would pose an immense challenge even for the Chicago Symphony, let alone a suburban orchestra of constantly shifting personnel. Despite this, Rapchak did a superb job of sustaining the intensity level for the duration of this demanding score. There was some suspect intonation in the violins, while the trumpets and horns occasionally faltered in their demanding parts. Overall, however, Rapchak's podium exhortations bore fruit in orchestral playing of remarkable power, brilliance and commitment.
The first movement, with its pre-echoes of the discarded "Blumine" movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, set off the solemn nobility of the chorale-like slow movement, with its magical close of shimmering, tremolando strings. The lengthy Scherzo danced with the lumbering swing of Austrian folk dance. The epic finale flirts with bombast, and Rott surely would have tightened its 24-minute sprawl had he lived longer; all the same, the sheer sweep and majesty of this music were impossible to resist.
Mahler's own "Songs of a Wayfarer," a song cycle written the same year Rott died, began the concert in a vivid, sensitively projected performance by Katherine McGookey. The young, Ohio-born mezzo-soprano, now a Chicago resident, revealed a fresh and appealing voice along with detailed attention to how words and music combine on an expressive plane greater than both. She's a discovery indeed. Rapchak and the orchestra were full partners in tone-painting.
Thanks to the Northbrookers, Rott languishes in Mahler's shadow no longer. I can't wait for the third and final installment of their cycle of neglected late-Romantic symphonies – Czech composer Josef Foerster's "Easter Eve" Symphony (1905) – next season.
The Northbrook Symphony Orchestra season will continue Nov. 17, Feb. 23, March 23 and April 13 at Sheely Center for the Performing Arts, 2300 Shermer Rd., Northbrook; $30-$50, $8 for children and students; 847-272-0755, thenso.org.