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Hans ROTT (1858-1884)
Balder ruhest du auch! - song cycle, adapted for baritone and orchestra by Enjott Schneider (b.1950), (?) [22:44]
Symphony in E major (1878) [51:21]
Michael Volle (baritone)
Münchner Symphoniker/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich, 5-9 August 2013
OEHMS CLASSICS OC1803 [74:30]

We still await a recording of student-composer Hans Rott's symphony by an orchestra and conductor of the very first rank. With just a few exceptions, the accounts that have come and gone over the past 25 years have derived from provincial or radio bands. Even enthusiasts for this remarkable work have found it difficult to keep track as recordings have sometimes appeared on little-known labels, only to disappear after a comparatively short time on the market.

Over the years I have listened to as many recorded versions as I've been able to get my hands on. In doing so, I have frequently noted how these lower-profile orchestras frequently compensate for any technical deficiencies by conveying a strong sense of their sheer enthusiasm for Rott's revelatory score. It's almost as though the players are relishing the opportunity of embarking on a venture where their efforts won't automatically be overshadowed by the likes of their more exalted colleagues of, say, the Vienna Philharmonic or London Symphony orchestras.

Any list of recordings must begin with the first, a groundbreaking 1989 account from the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra under conductor Gerhard Samuel (Hyperion CDA66366) that followed on from their world premiere live performance. That disc created a considerable stir on its release as several musicologists acclaimed the hitherto completely forgotten Rott as a sort of evolutionary missing link who somehow "explained" Mahler. Samuel's seminal recording was followed three years later by a grandly ponderous account from Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leif Segerstam (BIS CD-563) that, coming in at 63:44, still outlasts any of the others mentioned in this review by more than a full five minutes.

Interest in the symphony perked up somewhat in the late 1990s. A generally accomplished live recording of Jac van Steen conducting Hilversum's Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (ZOC 9702) preserved a 1997 performance that had convincingly reverted to sprightlier timings. The relatively brief interval before it was followed, only a year later, by a rather more polished studio account from Dennis Russell Davies and the Radio Symphonieorchester Wien (CPO 999 854-2), was indicative, perhaps, of a gradually increasing degree of interest in Rott's score.

Orchestre National de Montpellier's live - but somewhat opaque - recording from the year 2000, conducted by Friedemann Layer and released on the orchestra's own label (Orchestre National de Montpellier 1 CD), was distinctively conceived but would, perhaps, have benefited from another run-through before the microphones were switched on. A somewhat less characterful but perfectly serviceable - and better recorded - account from the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle (Arte Nova Classics 82876 57748 2) dates from 2003 and was itself followed, just a year later, by a performance by the Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Mainz under Catherine Rückwardt that, in some ways, I find the most attractive of the lesser-known versions (Acousence Classics ACO-CD 20104).

A subsequent gap of six years may have indicated a market close to saturation, but in 2010 Paavo Järvi conducted the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (RCA Red Seal/Sony Music 88691963192) in an account that, in shaving a full ten minutes off Segerstam's overall timing, was notable for being the liveliest issued up to that date. Coming from a major international label, it also remains the highest-profile recording of Rott's symphony that has appeared so far.

This new account under review comes from the Münchner Symphoniker and conductor Hansjörg Albrecht. Beautifully recorded last year by Oehms Classics's engineers, it has the distinction of clocking up the speediest timings yet in three of the symphony's four movements. It also, thereby, achieves the fastest overall duration so far on disc. Albrecht's distinctly lean and muscular approach offers, in fact, something of an antidote to some other accounts which, to greater or lesser degrees, have inflated the score into something rather more portentous or even grandiloquent, as if acknowledging its perceived status as a sort of Mahlerian Holy Grail.

The approach on this new release is, then, propulsive and energised from the outset. The dreamier and slightly mysterious atmosphere that overlaid the opening of, say, Gerhard Samuel's account - probably the most widely known, if only because of its sheer longevity in the Hyperion catalogue - has been banished. Just a few moments later, the brisk little marching passage (4:18-5:05) is taken at a slightly more up-tempo manner than usual, while the subsequent prominence given to the pizzicato strings at 6:01-6:40 again conveys the impression that the music is being steadily pushed on. The movement's closing pages are left to speak - perfectly eloquently - for themselves rather than being beefed up as Segerstam, for instance, is inclined to do.

The second movement exhibits an even greater contrast between this new account and its predecessors. Albrecht brings it in at just 8:58. The average duration recorded by his competitors works out at substantially more - 11:18 - with Segerstam stretching matters out to a staggering 14:01. The result of this approach is an interpretation that is less consciously other-worldly than its rivals, that flows smoothly and steadily along and even, as I scribbled once or twice in my notes, "sings". Some might regard that reluctance to linger for effect as too insensitive or relentless an approach: Rott's instruction is, after all (Adagio): Sehr langsam. Personally, however, I found it a refreshing change and an equally valid way of listening to the music.

The third movement offers far fewer and less significant contrasts. Maybe the Ländler-like dance episodes have more of an attractively rustic feel to them? Perhaps - in marked contrast with Albrecht's earlier propulsive approach - the substantial passage between 3:03 and 5:46 comes across as even more dreamy and ruminative than usual? But, overall, the interpretation is less individual and much more in line with other accounts.

We return, with the final movement, to the brisk, no-nonsense approach that characterised movements I and II. When, at 7:55-8:47, we first hear the "big tune" that will henceforth dominate the score, Albrecht presses determinedly on. He maintains the same approach through the final peroration (17:33 onwards) where, incidentally, that pesky omnipresent triangle is kept firmly under control - pace the Segerstam recording - by both the conductor and the Oehms engineers.

Mentioning the engineering team, it is worth stressing once again how impressive this recording is, right from the symphony's very opening passage where lots of often-obscured detail comes through - especially from the strings. The orchestral climax at 4:19-4:42 in the second movement is beautifully recorded, as are its cathartic closing moments. Similarly, admirably uncongested sound is apparent in the third movement, with fine, unlooked-for detail emerging in both quiet (1:10-1:21) and more energised (10:28-12:45) passages, while those showcasing the solo violin against the rest of the orchestra are especially effectively handled. The atmospheric opening (00:00-02:00) of movement IV provides a final and equally impressive example of sound engineering of the highest quality.

Most of the accounts of Rott's symphony that I have in my shelves come with no coupling. Your money gets you nothing else at all from Samuel, Segerstam, van Steen, Layer or Rückwardt, even though none of their accounts take up more than 64 minutes of disc space - and most have filled even less of the CD's capacity than that. Of those who do give us a bonus, Dennis Russell Davies throws in a 15:53 Pastorales Vorspiel, while Sebastian Weigle unearths an Orchestra Prelude in E major (3:29) and a Prelude to Julius Caesar (7:45). Even though Paavo Järvi supplements his sprightly account of the symphony with reconstructions of the two very brief surviving movements of a projected Suite for orchestra in B flat, his whole premium-priced disc still comes in at less than an hour's duration.

This new release appears to offer us rather a lot more - 22:44 of a hitherto-unrecorded song cycle for baritone and orchestra. What we have, in fact, is a new piece that's been put together by the prolific contemporary German composer - indeed, the current President of the German Composers' Union - Enjott Schneider.

Schneider has selected five of Rott's surviving songs, originally written with piano accompaniment, and given them new orchestral settings. He has, moreover, reset four of the five for a baritone voice. According to the invaluable www.hans-rott.de website, only Wandrers Nachtlied was actually composed to be sung by a baritone (or a bass). Der Sänger was envisaged by the composer as being performed by a bass, Das Vergissmeinnicht by a tenor and Das Veilchen and Zwei Wünsche by a tenor or a soprano. If those changes weren't enough already, Schneider has himself composed what the booklet notes describe as six "musical commentaries". The first of them opens the sequence, the next four separate each of Rott's five songs from the next, and the last provides the cycle with its conclusion. Each "commentary" lasts anywhere between 1:15 and 2:02 in length.

Rott’s severe mental problems and resulting inability to interact on a social level with others led to a diagnosis of incurable schizophrenia, incarceration in an asylum for three years and an early death at the age of just 25. An uninterrupted sequence of five songs that, according to the booklet notes (there is a lamentable absence of any English translation of the texts), generally focus on "a longing for death and withdrawal from the world", might therefore be thought to offer a somewhat less than listener-friendly experience. Schneider himself has attached to the cycle the none-too-cheerful title You will rest well soon!

In fact, however, the five songs themselves are really rather attractive, especially when sung by a singer of the skill and sensitivity of Michael Volle. Wandrers Nachtlied makes, it's true, rather a sombre opening, but, pace that theme of "longing for death", Das Veilchen, Zwei Wünsche, and Das Vergissmeinnich are each increasingly upbeat in tone and Der Sänger, the last and most substantial song, is positively resolute.

Schneider's attractive orchestrations fit Rott's melodies well and sound entirely convincing and of a piece. Meanwhile, his own contemporary musical "commentaries" offer a sort of 21st century perspective on Rott's personal history, informed, so the booklet notes inform us, by the latest Swedish research into apparent similarities between the thought processes of those labelled geniuses and those considered mad. Schneider’s augmentations transform the whole song cycle not only into a rather different beast but into a much more substantial work - 22:44, as opposed to just 13:29 if the songs are sung without them. They are certainly, at the very least, an interesting and intriguing addition, though separate tracking makes it easy to skip them if you are so inclined.

The inclusion of the songs - indeed, of a new song cycle - makes this a release that those who already know Rott's sadly truncated output will want to hear. Those attracted by the composer's greatest achievement, the E major symphony, will also find that the accomplished playing of the Münchner Symphoniker and Hansjörg Albrecht's consistently expert direction makes this release well worth their consideration.

I leave you with a small but intriguing issue that arises from this disc’s packaging. Its front cover simply proclaims the composer's name before listing the two works to be played. The details on the back cover include, however, an extra subheading, inadvertently (?) suggesting that at some point the disc may have been entitled Hans Rott (1858-1884) - Wege zu Gustav Mahler [Ways to Gustav Mahler]. Was that line - an echo of the musicological brouhaha of the late 1980s - originally planned for the front cover too, maybe as a helpful pointer to potential purchasers unfamiliar with Rott's music? It would be interesting, in that case, to understand the rationale behind its subsequent abandonment.

Rob Maynard