1880: Brahms, Rott & Bruckner
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle
Royal Festival Hall. 22 April 2016
Brahms: Tragic Overture; Hans Rott: Scherzo (Symphony in E); Bruckner: Symphony No.6.
Having helped to sort out the early music world over the past 30 years, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is now turning its hand to the high Romantics. Hot on the heels of their 14 April RFH performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (reviewed here), they now turn their hands to Bruckner and his rarely performed 6th Symphony, with Sir Simon Rattle. Their programme was built around the year 1880, and compared the music of three works composed in that year by three very different composers, one almost completely unknown.
The evening started, slightly unfortunately, with the Tragic Overture of Brahms, the bête noire of Bruckner and Hans Rott (pictured), and several others of a progressive ilk, such as Mahler. Unfortunate, because of the effect that Brahms’ withering comments on Hans Rott’s First Symphony had on the young composer. The unfortunate Rott (1858-84) was a student contemporary of Mahler and Hugo Wolf at the Vienna Conservatory, and studied organ with Bruckner, who saw him as his ‘favourite pupil’. Although Rott hadn’t impressed a conservatory competition panel with a piano reduction of the first movement, he went on to expand it into a four movement symphony. For reasons unknown, and certainly ill-advised, the then 22 year-old Rott showed the score to Brahms, an enemy of anything musically progressive, and of Bruckner and the Vienna conservatory. Brahms advised the already vulnerable young man to ‘give up composing’, leading to a possibly hallucinatory incident that resulted in him being committed to an asylum, where he died of tuberculosis, aged just 26, following several suicide attempts.
Mahler declared Rott’s symphony a work of ‘genius’, and Hans Rott the ‘founder of the new symphony’ and the two of them as ‘two fruits from the same tree’. But Rott’s symphony was never performed in his lifetime, or indeed at all for some 100 years after his death. I hope the OAE perform the entire symphony one day but, on this occasion, we only heard the extraordinary Scherzo. A helter-skelter kaleidoscope of musical ideas and snatches if Austrian life, it needed constant reminding that this was composed before Mahler’s symphonies, who later drew heavily on Rott’s imaginative original. Rott’s imaginative orchestrations and huge range of solo moments made it seem like we were wandering around a musical country fete overhearing the entire range of musical sounds and dances emanating from the various demonstrations. Rattle, the OAE and the audience loved every moment.
After that moment of sheer delight came Bruckner’s often overlooked Sixth Symphony, performed in the world premiere of a new edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs. Despite there apparently being ‘a mass of previously misunderstood or overlooked details’ that were addressed in the new edition, Simon Rattle conducted entirely from memory. As with Rott’s Scherzo, this is something of a kaleidoscope of ideas, many based on short and simple melodic motifs, for example the little six-note twirling passage near the start. Although there are the typical Bruckner hallmarks of long crescendos and crashing brass interventions, this is far from the musical style of the fourth ‘Romantic’ symphony. And the unique sound of the period instruments and period playing style of the OAE did much to accent the uniqueness of this work, aided by Simon Rattles attention both to detail and to the wider span of the music. There is a special bond between Rattle and the OAE spanning the entire 30 years of the OAE’s existence, and it showed.
This fascinating concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast.