Rota was one of the great film-score composers,
writing music for more than 150 movies, most famously Fellini’s 8½ and
Coppola’s The Godfather. His compositions for the
concert hall are equally numerous, but much less appreciated.
On the basis of this recording, that is our loss.
These two works predate his cinema output, and give some broad
hints as to why he was so successful and so much in demand by
directors and producers. If you like your twentieth century symphony
to be spiky and dissonant, look elsewhere. However, if your taste
runs to Vaughan Williams, Copland, Barber, Respighi and Sibelius,
you have a real treat on your hands. I list the first three of
those composers deliberately as he mixed with those greats during
his years studying in the United States with Fritz Reiner and
his countryman, Toscanini. In the latter’s New York apartment,
Rota spent much time with Vaughan Williams. As I read this in
the sleeve-notes, the appeal of this music began to make sense.
Both symphonies are identified in the notes as having a descriptive
landscape element to them. Indeed the Second has a title which
translates to “Age of Pilgrimage - Tarantina”, referring
to the town of Taranto, in the Puglia region of southern Italy,
where Rota moved from Rome. I don’t profess to be able
make a judgement on this, not having been to southern Italy,
but there is a sunny and optimistic character to much of both
works that is definitely Italian.
The First Symphony is described as neo-classical, but that undersells
its passion. It begins with an Allegro con moto taken
relatively slowly by Conti, introduced by a beautiful pastoral
theme in the winds, before a noble, almost Elgarian brass fanfare.
The second movement Andante is Sibelius transplanted to
Italy - melancholic, but with an underlying optimism. It is dominated
by sombre brass and strings, with the winds providing a contrast
in mood. It is breathtakingly beautiful music. The third movement Allegro
vivace - a scherzo in all but name - is all dance rhythms,
chirpy winds and boisterous brass. The final movement Largo
maestoso - an unusual tempo for a closing movement - begins
in sadness and introspection with most VWish strings, and finishes
in an uplifting and glorious climax.
The Second begins in similar pastoral fashion to the First, but
instead of the sweeping strings that carry its first movement,
there is a tender song in the woodwind. The second movement begins
very jauntily: the notes describe it as a tarantella. I don’t
really agree: it is more restrained than that and indeed poetic
at times. The opening of the third movement brings the Tallis
Fantasia to mind, though there is the added element of sombre
brass. A tentative flute melody leads us out of the gloom, and
the strings and brass provide some stirring climaxes before the
sense of sadness and resignation returns. By complete contrast,
the finale is all lightness and humour - Prokofiev’s First
Symphony seems to be echoed.
I had intended to describe these two symphonies as the best “new” music
I have heard this year, where “new” meant “new
to me”, but to my surprise, I discovered I already had
another recording of both works - the Norrköping Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud (BIS
CD970). That I had completely forgotten it is, I guess, the
inevitable consequence of a large collection - and yes, I realise
that it might also be the result of getting older! The Chandos
version has better sound, and subtly better performances - a
little more dynamic perhaps.
These two symphonies are the best non-mainstream works I have
heard in a long while and if this isn’t my Record of the
Year, I look forward to hearing what is!
David J Barker