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Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Variazioni e Fuga nei dodici toni sol nome di Bach [17:20]
15 Preludi [23:56]
Valzer [2:49]
Ippolita Gioca [1:18]
7 Pezzi difficili per Bambini [11:15]
Fantasia in G [14:41]
Christian Seibert (piano)
rec. 11-13 July 2012, Klaus von Bismarck Saal, Cologne, Germany
Booklet in German and English
CPO 555 019-2 [70:21]

Once upon a time I used to visit the Musicweb Film Music pages more frequently than the main site. Not only have I always loved the music associated with film and the theatre-going experience, but I’ve long believed that music composed for film will be one of the most enduring cultural legacies of the twentieth century. It’s sad but probably inevitable that the Film Music pages closed just into this century, in 2006, as movies and the nature of their production evolved. While film composing ‘greats’ such as Ennio Morricone and John Williams remain active, many others did not see in the new century. Among those was Nino Rota, now immortalised through his scores for movies such as The Godfather and Il gattopardo (The Leopard).

The greater part of Rota’s creative life was spent as director of the Conservatorio di Musica Niccolò Piccinni in the Apulian city of Bari. His pupils included current conducting luminaries Riccardo Muti and Riccardo Chailly. Apart from some 150 film scores, Rota also composed operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, choral works and chamber music. While all his music was touched with the one compositional brush, the reputation he gained from his film scores was at times sullied by derision of his other ‘serious’ works, to which he once retorted: “For me it is the same music. It is my music. Others invent the difference.” The 1980 New Grove attributes Rota with “retaining the supremacy of melody, a tonality free of harmonic complexity, established patterns of rhythm and form, and a concept of music as spontaneous, direct expression”. His idiom was centred in late romanticism, but “avoiding sentimentality, he worked in all genres with a discernment and technical mastery that gained him the respect even of those who regarded his attitude as outdated”. The New Grove also notes his “extreme facility in piano improvisation”, reinforced by the account in the liner notes of him all but living at the keyboard, and occasionally sleeping on it! Not surprisingly, therefore, he left a number of compositions for piano but, by the same token, not as many as would be expected – a mere fourteen opus numbers, of which the present CD contains six.

The opening work, a set of 13 variations and fugue in twelve tones on the name of Bach, sets an imposing sonic stage. This is technicolor B-A-C-H, a chromatic extravaganza where the key motif at times is buried under the rich harmonies supporting it. While the piece is immediately entertaining, it can also become a little predictable and loosen its grip on the listener. A composer of great musical generosity, Rota is perhaps his own worst enemy, laying out all his cards and climaxing almost from the outset. It may be a personal thing, but my least favourite Mahler symphony is the Eighth for much the same reason, and likewise Mendelssohn’s oratorios, which spend most of their time celebrating victory after a very short struggle. Rota’s treatment of his material also suggests a little revision might have helped – he reputedly worked on several compositions at any one time – there are, for example, sequences of near-identical phrases which tend to wear out their welcome, something ‘great’ composers seem instinctively to avoid. Without doubt, though, performing this work requires immense virtuosity, and it has an ideal advocate in Christian Seibert. He commands supreme clarity and power throughout, culminating in the finger-breaking fugue. Most importantly, though, he conveys obvious affection and regard for the music.

There is a decidedly Neapolitan flavour about the fifteen preludes that follow - in melody, rhythm and flair. They make up the most substantial work on the CD, in length at least, and also bring the highest levels of variety and invention. Never far away from a good tune or a romantic sentiment, Rota nonetheless endows these short pieces with a variety of contrasts that enhances their collective power, and keeps the listener guessing - from hints of Chopin and Debussy to more modern harmonies, à la Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and infusions of the composer’s trademark circus music – the Rota of La Strada. Seibert obliges with aptly mercurial playing that brings out all their colour, charm and wittiness. For all that, though, I found nothing sufficiently catchy or memorable about any of these pieces that caused me to press the replay button. They are best heard as the full set.

Music of immediate, intense, but evanescent, charm could also describe the two miniatures that follow, Valzer and Ippolita Gioca, the latter a musical portrait of the son of Rota’s teacher, Ildebrando Pizzetti, at play. It’s perhaps because I have a fourteen-year-old daughter learning the piano that I then found the 7 Pezzi difficili per Bambini (Seven Difficult Pieces for Children) of most interest and fascination. Given that Rota had to apply his abundant creativity while limiting technical demands on the player, he achieved in spades his challenge to offer young pianists material to “inspire their fantasy”, as the liner notes say. Titles such as “Nocturnal Cricket” and “Tom Thumb in the Jungle” stir imagination and suggest style. In keeping with the description of these pieces, though, they are indeed difficult, and if my daughter were able to play them even half as well as Christian Seibert, I’d be cock-a-hoop!

The recital finishes with the Fantasia in G, originally composed for but never played in public by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. It’s an imposing work with the full chromatic palette of the opening Bach variations, but more romantic in style, perhaps through being an earlier composition. As something of a counterweight to the Bach, it makes for an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to the CD’s programme. CPO’s sound for Seibert, in keeping with the nature of the music, is sonorous and detailed, with a very wide – dare I say panoramic – piano image.

A fine selection, then, of Nino Rota’s colourful and inventive piano music, superbly played by Christian Seibert. If it ultimately fails in the “I want more” stakes, it perhaps indicates why Rota, justly famed for his film scores, was less successful with his other works. On the evidence here, particularly in his marvellous pieces for children, Rota’s prodigious talent was best communicated when constrained by parameters either of his own making or, in the case of his film scores, demanded by others.

Des Hutchinson



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