NINO ROTA: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano; Improvviso in D Minor for Violin and Piano; Toccata for Bassoon and Piano; Sonata in D Major for Clarinet and Piano; Fantasia in G Major for Piano – Goran Gojevic, clar./ Mary Kenedi, p./ Lynn Kuo, v./ Winona Zelnka, cello/ Michael Sweeney, bassoon – Naxos 8.572778, 59:07 [4/13] ****:
Composer Nino Rota (1911-1979) possessed several strings in his musical harp: like Mozart, this Milanese prodigy was composing by the age of eight. By age fifteen he had seen an oratorio produced, and he had been accepted into the composition class of Alfredo Casella. Toscanini recommended that the boy study at the Curtis Institute, 1931-1932, thus acquainting the lad with current trends in American composition.
During the 1930s Rota produced a number of works in neo-Classical style; and in 1939, he became a lecturer at the Bari Conservatory, where he later assumed directorship from 1950-1977. In 1952 Rota began a collaboration with Italian film director Federico Fellini, a partnership that lasted until Rota’s death. Then, working with director Francis Ford Coppola, Rota created The Godfather theme and scores that earned him an Academy Award.
Opening this chamber music divertissement – by a fine group of Toronto-based musicians – is the 1973 Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, a piece whose first movement, played staccatissimo, enjoys a lyrically breezy persuasion, very much in the light Stravinsky mode. A large double forte ends the movement. Cello and clarinet combine for a meditative Andante, a sweet duet that asks the piano to contribute some askew harmonies. This dreamy melancholy seems to typify Rota’s style and warrants repeated hearing. The last movement Allegrissimo exemplifies Rota’s often rustic humor, and auditors may find a kinship with Kabalevsky’s wit. Gojevic’s clarinet packs a luscious tone, and we soon grant that deserved to win Yugoslavia’s National Musical Competition. So, too, the lovely cello “intrusions” into the quirky dance from Toronto Symphony Principal Cello Winona Zelenka make their affecting impressions. Pianist Mary Kenedi’s studies in Budapest at the Liszt Academy; her familiarity with Bartok and Kodaly’s music, makes the metric shifts in Rota facile and agreeable. The D Minor Improvviso (1947) for Violin and Piano is derived from a film score, Amanti senza amore.
Based on the principals’ reactions in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, the rhapsodic piece often imitates Ravel’s Tzigane, but more histrionic, like the famous picture of the male violinist and female pianist in passionate embrace. The Toccata (1974) for Bassoon and Piano takes its cue from an earlier concerto Rota conceived for bassoon. The bassoon part, negotiated by Michael Sweeney, alternates between sonorous lyricism and mischievous antics, while the piano often indulges in lightly spry ostinati figures that again evoke Kabalevsky. Brahms may well have set the model for the Sonata in D Major for Clarinet and Piano (1945); and indeed, the autumnal mood of the opening Allegretto scorrevole seems close to the Brahms Sonata in E-flat Major. This quest for consolation in post-war Europe deeply affects Rota’s aesthetic: “If I could make everyone around me have a moment of serenity I would do all I can. Basically, this is the sentiment that animates my music.” At almost any moment of reserve and reflection, we seem to envision the amazing face of Fellini’s wife, actress Giulietta Massina. Even more plaintive, the tender Andante movement casts an undercurrent of gloom that we might recall in Rota’s score for La Strada. The last movement, Allegro scorrevole, balances the first movement with another Brahms clarinet bath of warmth and good will. Quite an accessible piece, this sonata.
The Rota collection concludes with a recent discovery, the composer’s 1945 Fantasia in G Major, a piece long buried in the rubble of manuscripts at the Cini Foundation. Rather than assuaging sentiments, the Fantasia reflects the dark wartime ethos, beginning with a chorale plaint, which when harmonized moves with a Franckian canonic deliberation to preserve its motifs, which for the most part avoids G Major. The series of block chords reminds commentator Mary Kenedi of Debussy’s Le Cathedrale Engloutie. The scherzando passages ring first of Haydn then wax romantic in the Liszt mold, the chords chorale-like in the midst of chromatic bass harmonies, a kind of neo-Bach-Busoni. A middle section waxes lyrical and relatively diatonic, the textures again reminiscent of the quiet trios in a huge Franck structure. The virtuosity and coloration Kenedi achieves certainly convince us of her digital and poetic prowess, her having convinced us that the Rota legacy extends meaningfully beyond his cinematic repute.