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Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Chamber Works
Trio for flute, violin & piano [12:27]
Due valzer sul nome Bach, for piano: No. 1, Circus-Valzer [1:30]; No. 2, Valzer-Carillon [1:56]
Piccola offerta musicale [4:03]
Nonetto for wind and strings [24:39]
Trio for clarinet, cello & piano [13:56]
Preludes for solo piano (1964): II & XIII [3:45]
rec. August 2020, La Courroie, Entraigues sur la Sorgue, France
Tracks and performer details after review
ALPHA 746 [62:25]

Eleven musicians collaborate for this new album of chamber music by Nino Rota on Alpha. Three players, Daishin Kashimoto, Emmanuel Pahud and Joaquín Riquelme García, are members of the Berliner Philharmonic and have come together with friends from the ensemble Les Vents Français and performers from the International Music Festival in Salon-de-Provence. Surely, if this were an opera recording, it would be described as ‘luxury casting’.

Undeniably, when the name of Rota is mentioned, I immediately think of film scores. Few music-lovers will not have heard the main theme from American director Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning film The Godfather (1972) starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Rota’s haunting soundtrack contributes to the success of what is now regarded by many as one of the greatest ever films. The film score was initially nominated for an Academy Award for Original Dramatic Score, only for it to be rescinded when it was discovered that he had used a theme from one of his earlier films. The outcome might have been different today, as eligibility for nomination in the equivalent category has now changed. While there was no Oscar for The Godfather score, it did win Rota a Grammy Award, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe and in 1974 Rota received an Academy Award for best original score for the sequel, The Godfather Part II.

Prior to The Godfather score, Rota was already a seasoned composer, having written around one hundred and fifty film scores, with another twenty or so still to come. As well as writing for Coppola and the Italian director Federico Fellini of La Dolce Vita (1960) fame, he wrote music for film and theatre productions by other Italian directors such as Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and Eduardo de Filippo.

Nino Rota’s parents were keenly aware of the importance of pursuing a formal education and from the age of twelve in 1923, he began a fourteen-year period of music and literature study; my brief biography of Rota is positioned after this review. In addition to his compositional activities during the period 1950-78, he embarked on a teaching career as music professor, resulting in directorship of the Bari Conservatory. Influential and heavily involved in the musical life of Bari, Rota’s elevated status enabled him to invite many international performers to play in the city.

In 2014, after reporting from a concert that Riccardo Chailly had conducted at Semperoper Dresden with his Gewandhausorchester Leipzig the next day, I interviewed the Milanese maestro at his Leipzig hotel. Having become enthusiastic about all matters Chailly-related, I caught up with a video of the Berliner Philharmonica’s Waldbühne open-air concert from 2011, in which Chailly enthusiastically conducted a suite from Nino Rota’s soundtrack to Federico Fellini’s classic film La strada (1954). It was hard to get that music out of my head and I still enjoy playing and watching the clip. Chailly is a champion of his Milanese compatriot’s music and with his Filarmonica della Scala in 2019 released ‘The Fellini Album’ Nino Rota – Music of Federico Fellini Films on Decca (review). Rota first met the twenty-one-year-old Chailly in 1974 on a summer course in Lanciano, Italy where he was assisting young musicians for a performance of his Piano Concerto in C with Rota as soloist and Chailly conducting.

In a career spanning about sixty years, Rota’s style embraced a broad range of influences from the Baroque to the Romantic eras. Although the major component of his output was one hundred and seventy film scores, he composed in most genres, including three symphonies, eleven concertos, ten operas and operettas, sixteen ballets and much incidental theatre music, sacred choral works and other vocal works. He also wrote a substantial body of mixed chamber works, including instrumental pieces. Away from Rota’s film scores, his concert and chamber repertoire is much undervalued and deserves far wider circulation. This new album containing a selection of mixed chamber music covering over thirty years of Rota’s creativity is a delight to review.

The cornerstone of the album is Rota’s Nonetto, a commission received in 1957 from the Czech Nonet, an ensemble he had welcomed to play in Bari. However, the Nonetto, including revisions, was some twenty years in the making, becoming what annotator Francesco Lombardi describes in the essay as ‘an endless work in progress.’ It is scored for winds and strings, namely, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Eventually it received its first performance in 1976 at a summer festival at Città di Castello in Perugia after which Rota further modified the work. Taking almost thirty minutes here to perform, this five movement Nonetto is the longest work on the album by some ten minutes. Typically, it is a score of exuberance and varied ideas, especially in the opening movement Allegro. The captivating fourth movement, a Canzone with five variations packed full of interest and activity, stands out and this superb performance does it full justice as a key work in Rota’s chamber music output.

A commission from the Trio Klemm, received around the same time as the Nonetto, is the Trio for flute, violin and piano, completed by Rota in 1958. Said to contain Stravinskian influences, it is an exacting work for the pair of ‘melody instruments’ the flute and violin, who participate in a lively and sometimes heated and anguished conversation in the outer movements. By comparison, the central Andante sostenuto communicates a sense of peace over suggestions of a melancholy undertow. 

One of the later works, written in 1973 is the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, where I admire the way Rota balances instruments as they relate to one other in a work identified by some as evoking Prokofiev. Overall, the outer movement Allegros contain wilful, nervy and prickly writing; the final movement is a memorable madcap romp. Marked Andante, the contrasting central movement has a cantabile melody yet is of a rather sorrowful disposition. 

In addition to the Nonetto and two Trios, the album contains five smaller pieces. The earliest of these, written in 1943 during the terrors of the Second World War, is the single movement Piccola offerta musicale, a wind quintet scored for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn. Dedicated to the composer Alfredo Casella, his teacher in Rome, this miniature masterpiece is brimful with ideas and activity and the wind players clearly revel in it. My only regret is that this alluring piece is all over far too soon.

Rota wrote a considerable number of solo piano pieces, including his set of Fifteen Preludes in 1964. Which is, apparently, is a popular choice by students for examinations at Italian conservatories. Two of the Fifteen Preludes are included here and performed by Eric Le Sage on a Steinway model D. The first is the Prelude XIII – Andante cantabile, a Romantic piece, predominantly gentle and affectionate with a warm nocturnal feeling. The second piece, the Prelude II – Allegro, ma espressivo e delicato is appealingly melodic with an exquisitely tender-hearted charm. Written in 1975, the Due valzer sul nome di Bach (Two waltzes on the name Bach) are fashioned on the famed musical cryptogram BACH in the German notation. Played here by La Sage, the first of these delightful pieces is entitled Circus-Valzer (Circus Waltz), convincingly evoking a brisk and carefree circus procession, while the second Valzer-Carillon (Waltz Carillon) is rhythmically percussive.

The album was recorded under studio conditions at La Courroie, Entraigues sur la Sorgue and there are no difficulties whatsoever regarding the sound quality. The essay entitled ‘Nino Rota by Francesco Lombardi’, is interesting enough, although ideally, I want a little more information about each work.

There are alternative recordings in the catalogue of these works but I do not know them and cannot make comparisons. However, the performances from the talented group of musicians here are impeccable; they respond with vitality and a gratifying sense of interplay. Memorable, too, are the polished playing, impeccable ensemble, and range of tone colours created. I’m unsure why the eleven players have not given themselves a name.

This is an entirely compelling album of Rota chamber works. If you know Rota’s music only from his film scores, this would be an ideal place to start exploring his legacy. Those familiar with Rota’s music, even if there are duplications, will find this a valuable addition for the quality of the playing alone.

Michael Cookson

Daishin Kashimoto - violin (1-3, 7-11),
Emmanuel Pahud - flute (1-3, 6-11),
Eric Le Sage - piano (1-5, 12-16),
Paul Meyer - clarinet (6-14),
François Meyer - oboe (6-11),
Gilbert Audin - bassoon (6-11),
Benoît de Barsony - horn (6-11),
Joaquín Riquelme García - viola (7-11),
Claudio Bohórquez - cello (7-11),
Olivier Thiery - double bass (7-11),
Aurélien Pascal - cello (12-14).

List of works:
1-3.) Trio for flute, violin & piano (1958) [12:27]
Due valzer sul nome di Bach (1975):
4.) No. 1, Circus-Valzer [1:30]
5.) No. 2, Valzer-Carillon [1:56]
6.) Piccola offerta musicale (wind quintet) (1943) [4:03]
7-11.) Nonetto for wind & strings (1959 rev. 1974-76, 1977) [24:39]
12-14.) Trio for clarinet, cello & piano (1973) [13:56]
Fifteen Preludes for solo piano (1964):
15.) Prelude XIII for solo piano. Andante cantabile [1:57]
16.) Prelude II for solo piano. Allegro, ma espressivo e delicato [1:48]

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