Performing Mozart's almost ubiquitous Piano Concerto no. 21 K467 in the city of its inception is no task for the timid. From the first piano entry however it was clear that young Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki was able to accomplish what could be considered the impossible; namely, to make this most familiar of concertos sound totally fresh and effortlessly alive.

© Kerstin Glasow | Wiener Konzerthaus
© Kerstin Glasow | Wiener Konzerthaus

There was an infectious spontaneity in the opening Allegro maestoso and Lisiecki’s recapitulation of the jaunty march theme was quickly matched by a precocious serenity in the lyrical G minor passage. The inherent exuberance of Mozart’s score came as naturally to the gifted Canadian as strudel with Schlagobers.

An original cadenza displayed impressive understanding of the thematic material with crisp and even semiquaver runs and stylistically sensitive counterpoint. The celebrated Andante was a model of gracious lyricism without a soupçon of gratuitous sentimentality. Exquisite phrasing with pristine attention to slurs and stress markings was achieved with a gossamer-light touch. Lisiecki lept into the Allegro vivace assai with the avidity of a Lipizzaner let off the reins and opted for the bravura cadenza by Paul Badura-Skoda. Unexpected fermatas, rapid chromatics and some jolly syncopation made for an exuberant virtuosic display.

Sebastian Weigle led the Wiener Symphoniker with sensitivity and the orchestral sound was alternatively playful or seductive as required. Tempi were slow but never sluggish in a reading which was reminiscent of Dinu Lipatti – fresh, ebullient, elegiac and inherently refined. An encore of Chopin's Nocturne in C minor Op.48. no. 1 showed Lisiecki in more pensive mode.

Jan Lisiecki, Sebastian Weigle and the Wiener Symphoniker © Kerstin Glasow | Wiener Konzerthaus
Jan Lisiecki, Sebastian Weigle and the Wiener Symphoniker
© Kerstin Glasow | Wiener Konzerthaus

Mozart needs no introduction but the name Hans Carl Maria Rott is more likely to send music lovers scurrying to their Groves. Despite being Bruckner’s favourite student, Hans Rott never achieved the approbation of Brahms, who seemed incorrigibly critical of the volatile young Viennese. Rott was so traumatised by the great German composer’s disdain that, in an early manifestation of insanity, he once drew a pistol on a train to Switzerland claiming that Brahms had put dynamite on board.

The first movement of Rott’s only symphony, with soaring Brucknerian trumpet solo, was an entry in the Vienna Conservatory composition competition in 1878. It was greeted with ridicule by the jury, which notably included... Johannes Brahms. Rott completed his magnum opus two years later but it was never performed during the composer’s tragically brief lifetime. It was left unloved and unknown until valiant research by Oxford University musicologist Paul Banks led to the symphony’s world première by Gerhard Samuel with the Cincinnati Philharmonia in 1989. Rott certainly anticipates Mahler and Richard Strauss, but also looks back to Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann and Wagner – especially Das Rheingold.

Interestingly, not only Hugo Wolf but Gustav Mahler were fellow students of Rott. According to Banks, the great symphonist went so far as to say that Rott’s opus “soared to such heights of genius, it makes him, without exaggeration, the founder of the New Symphony as I understand it”. Similarities between the third movement of Rott's symphony and the second movement of Mahler’s First are so close as to be Doppelgängers. It is surely no coincidence that Mahler obtained a copy of Rott’s score in 1890.

No matter how kindly one looks at the work, it is clearly a student composition with numerous technical and instrumental shortcomings. Excessive use of triangle becomes intensely grating after the first few hundred entries and the score abounds in almost impossible dynamic markings – ppppp and fffff figure prominently. That said, it is a fascinating composition.

The biggest challenge for conductors is how to achieve optimal orchestral balance as the hefty brass section, low strings pedals and droning timpani rolls tend to overwhelm the other sections, particularly winds. Weigle recorded the symphony in 2004 and has become something of a Rott prosetyliser. His tempi were well measured as he deftly overcame the difficult instrumental imbalance and the Symphoniker responded to his unambiguous direction with enthusiasm and élan. The aforementioned Mahler-esque Frisch und lebhaft movement with thumpy Ländler rhythms was particularly well played and included a maudlin triple time first violin solo with nuanced rubato. The brazen and bombastic Sehr langsam last movement with allusions to Brahms’ First Symphony was memorable for some fine horn and double bass playing and a decibel shattering tutti recapitulation of the principal theme. 

According to Rott scholar Frank Litterscheid, Bruckner admonished the sceptics of his favourite student by proclaiming “Do not laugh, gentlemen, of this man you will hear great things yet!” Almost 140 years later, Bruckner’s prescient prediction has come to fruition.