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Rott'n'Roll: Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )

Guest Orchestra • ORF RSO Vienna

With Berg on the program (ditto Webern or Schoenberg), ticket sales recede noticeably, predictably. In Salzburg just as anywhere else. When the composer/work that is coupled with Berg (in this case the Violin Concerto) is so completely unknown to audiences as Hans Rott’s Symphony in E, then it is almost surprising to find the Felsenreitschule (1400 seats) at about 95% capacity with only a few lacunae among the seats and “Looking for [cheap] Ticket” signs before its doors, roughly in balance with the “[expensive] Ticket to sell” signs. Reason to stay away for some, reason to attend for others; for me the combination of Rott and Berg spelled out a great concert! Unfortunately it didn’t guarantee a great performance.

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HRott, Sy. no.1,
S.Weigle / Munich RSO
Arte Nova

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A.Berg, Violin Concerto,
A.Steinbacher / A.Nelsons / WDR SO

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its young (1980-born) Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Cornelius Meister (also Music Director of the Heidelberg Philharmonic and Opera), performed Berg’s Violin Concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja first. He started out with a warm and romantic, confident opening – Kopatchinskaja with a rough, darkly hollow tone in tow. Joyously swaying and bopping along the rhythms, she never descended to pianissimo and or gave that silvery-ethereal tone to the concerto that it is often endowed with. Whether it was that or not, something was missing from the performance; after the notably earthy, terrific start it petered out and offered two movements of well-intentioned tedium.

Hans Rott’s Symphony comes with a great story about which I have written before (for WETA’s now defunct column, and in an upcoming issue of LISTEN Magazine). It’s a grand work, not a great one. It’s flawed, but comprises an absolutely loveable smorgasbord of ideas, and most of them beautifully welded together. If romantic music is up your ally, and a hint of naïve pomposity doesn’t scare you, Hans Rott’s symphony is one you must hear. There are lots of Wagnerian bits, there’s some Schumann, here we go Bruckner, and whoa, Brahms! No wonder the already famous composer wasn’t amused when Rott showed him the audacious work: Rather than being flattered to find himself musically united in a work with these other composers, Brahms probably perceived the final movement of Rott’s symphony—with its more than explicit reference to the finale of his First—as making fun of him.

The ambitious but short (8 minutes, “Alla breve”) first movement, announced with an exposed trumpet solo, received (rightly) spontaneous applause which was of course quickly quelled by the Vigilant Applause Police. It nearly brought tears to my eyes when I imagined how Hans Rott, who—distraught, impoverished, confused—committed suicide at age 26, might have responded to such expression of public approval for his work. The ORF RSO, which recorded the Symphony on the cpo label under Dennis Russell Davis a decade ago, added a terrifically moving Adagio, even as the strings where still clumsy under Meister’s ambiguous, erratically waving direction. The triangle, popping up in some 600 (out of 1500) bars, was only partly reigned in, which added an occasional element of stuck doorbell. The expansive Scherzo and “Very slow – Lively” finale didn’t appear well rehearsed, but no sloppiness could steal the thunder of Hans Rott entirely, helping the composer, if not the performers, to a considerable success. Certainly not a great performance, but still almost a great concert.

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