HANS ROTT – A Short Life

Austrian Late Romantic composer Hans Rott [1858–1884] wrote one string quartet. Somebody brought it to my attention, and I thank that person. Written in 1880, it is generally considered to be a student work, although he turned 22 that year, but it has a forward-looking character that is totally unexpected. The quartet is in five movements, mostly at slow tempos. The first two movements, easily the longest in the work, contain slow, stunning soundscapes – they definitely transcend the time in which they were written.

The first movement, marked langsamlento, opens with a brief, throbbing cello motif before the violins drift in a sparse manner, creating a magnificent soundscape. They briefly pause and return with a similar, other-worldly feeling. I just cannot believe this music is from 1880. Now the sound becomes fuller, with a prominent chromatic descending cello line in a brief section. Suddenly the music comes to life with a spirited passage for all instruments, which is both rhythmically and harmonically complex. This does not last and a peace returns, this time of a more Romantic pastoral nature, with the violins being especially lyrical. A return to the rhythmic tension, again, is not quite the same as previously heard.

A recapitulation returns to the beauty of the opening with a stunning violin line, which is eventually harmonised by the second violin – I hear a hint of that memorable melody from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake here – it is deeply moving. This section continues, all the while hinting at the Tchaikovsky phrase. A cello passage introduces a brief call and response which quickly moves into a moment featuring a plaintive solo violin – there is some deep emotional expression to be found here. A flurry of activity leads to another pastoral feeling and a gentle throbbing cello evokes the opening soundscape, which is extremely captivating. Slowly it builds in intensity before a stunning passage for cello and violin leads to a conclusion. I have never heard these sounds from a 19th century quartet before, although the level of emotional expression of Beethoven’s late quartets is somewhat similar. It’s just that Rott sounds so modern.

The second movement, marked adagio, again opens a little lamentingly, but with a certain sense of inner strength. The first violin is very lyrical in its expression and the ensemble answers its probing phrases. Gradually, the sound becomes fuller, all the while with an over-arching sense of melancholy, although it doesn’t approach the beauty of the previous movement. Having said that, it is a very attractive piece of music, with a fine impression of the Romantic era revealed. Now a dual violin passage brings forth a simply stunning passage, with both violins in complete concordance. Eventually, the ensemble joins in, but the violins retain their heavenly lyrical nature and, nearing the end, it is just the two violins and a sustained chord.

These two movements are roughly the same length, about ten minutes in duration. Strangely, the first seemed so much longer than the second and I’ve realised what I have written is substantially different for each movement. I think this says something about the surreal nature of the opening.

The second and third movements are so short that I am going to treat them as one. Trilled violin bowings allow the cello to express a strong melody for a time before leading into a period of dominance by the violins. The music is now very active and only drops in intensity to allow the cello to again step forward with a period of rhythmic punctuation. The ending is abrupt and leads straight into a stately mood which could have been written before 1800. This is filled with melodic interest as all instruments contribute to the mood – the end is sudden.

The finale, with markings of langsam and lento, begins with a solo violin and I realise it is a fugue. When the cello enters, the sound has become very full and the mood almost rapturous for a time. This feeling is allayed by a new passage with a strong pulse and many overlapping rhythmic melodic lines. A return to a sparse fugue-like mood has the cello supporting tentative violin lines, which doesn’t last as a moderate tempo is initiated with the violins gradually increasing in intensity. For a moment the violins relent and the cello dances to its own tune, with the violins comping in the background. A passage of call and response initiates development of a melodic phrase, at some length. The sound is very full now and the work concludes with a flourish. I’ve just noticed that this has been a live performance as applause breaks out, and so it should, this is a wondrous quartet.

To me, Rott’s music ask more questions than it provides in answers. The first movement is profound in its textures and musical atmosphere. Where did this strange, beautiful music come from? Not from his contemporaries, that’s for sure. He died when he was 25, which seems such a waste of a musical talent, based on this quartet.

The review CD, on the Acousence Classics label and performed by the Mainz Quartet, is paired with a String Symphony. It can also be found with the Bruckner String Quartet by the Israel Quartet on the Quintone label – this version is a hybrid SACD, which I now understand to be playable on any CD device. Interestingly, both the Bruckner and Rott quartets are in the key of C minor.

The work can be found on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A wonderful, indefinable string quartet.


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