Nino Rota: Symphonies 1 & 2

Filarmonica “˜900 del Teatro Regio di Torino
Marzio Conti, conductor


It’s a funny thing, but people usually classify the output of composers who write for the cinema into two categories: film music and “serious” music, a distinction that shows scant respect for the former. This despite the fact that numerous composers (Villa-Lobos, Vaughn Williams, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Walton, Korngold) have been glad to refurbish material they originally composed for the movies and bring it out again, to great applause, in the symphony hall.

In the case of Nino Rota (1911-1979), the disparity in his public reputation is acute. His great success writing scores for the post-war Italian cinema (La Strada, 8 1/2, Amarcord, The Leopard, La Dolce Vita, Rocco and His Brothers) and Hollywood (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Godfather) led to the perception that he was “only” a film composer. His respectable body of music in other genres, including four symphonies, at least a half-dozen concertos for various instruments, ten operas and five ballets, works for string orchestra and chamber music, went unnoticed.

Until fairly recently, that is. The present offering – the fourth on the Chandos label alone, part of a modest wave of rediscovery – presents a composer who is very easy to like and enjoy. Symphonies 1 & 2, products of his twenties, show Rota as a 20th century romantic, not entirely unaware of modernist trends (and they really proliferated in Rome during the period between wars, so much so that he moved to the quiet of rural Puglia to avoid the intellectual confusion). Both these symphonies reveal his very Italian way of writing vocally inspired material, his mature ability to handle woodwinds and cut them into the orchestration for best effect in naturally interesting and striking ways, and his way with the various layers of string writing. They also reveal, as annotator Michele René Mannucci points out, the influence of someone we might not have thought, a figure he met in Sunday soirées at Arturo Toscanini’s apartment in New York during his sojourn in America in 1930-32. It was the Englishman, Ralph Vaughn Williams.

The Vaughn Williams connection is most evident in the love of landscape painting in music, a trait both composers shared, and in Rota’s scherzo movements, highly rhythmic, rhapsodic, and not at all concerned with sounding a trifle bumptious in their expression of the sheer joy of life. (He once said, famously, “I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness.”) Annotator Mannucci sees a marine setting in the opening movement of Symphony No. 1, incredibly tender and rich in melodic motifs – though this is a typically Mediterranean seascape, not as menacing or of such profound compass as Debussy’s La Mer. Nor should we view the mood of the second movement, where woodwinds give way to the darker brass, as foreshadowing the imminent world war in this 1935-39 symphony. Contrast it to the corresponding movement in William Walton’s own First Symphony if you want to hear a real expression of “˜tween-wars anxiety and a harbinger of bad news! Actually, Rota’s Andante provides a point of balance between two happy, life-affirming movements.

Symphony No. 2 (1937-39) is scored for a slightly smaller orchestra than its predecessor. Conductor Marzio Conti seems to really enjoy the spirit of this neo-romantic work with the dancing woodwinds and the bucolic quality of its opening movement, marked Allegro tranquillo, the rhythms of the Tarantella in the scherzo, Allegro molto vivace, and the nocturnal atmosphere imparted by strings and brass in the slow movement, ending in a flute passage that seems to herald the break of day. The finale, like that of Symphony No. 1 (but even more so), is an expression of the joy of living, pulsating beneath its dotted rhythms. Too much joy, in fact, for the times (1939). Rota shelved it, and the work was not premiered until 1975.

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