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CD Review

Nicolas Flagello

  • Credendum for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 67
  • a Goldoni Overture
  • Piano Concerto #2, Op. 18
  • Overture Burlesca
  • Piano Concerto #3, Op. 36
Elmar Oliveira, violin
Tatjana Rankovich, piano
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Koslice/David Amos
Vox Classics VOX 7521 (Artek 2)
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  • Declamation for Violin & Piano, Op. 54
  • Prélude, Ostinato & Fugue for Piano, Op. 30
  • Nocturne for Violin & Piano
  • Suite for Harp & String Trio, Op. 48
  • Sonata for Violin & Piano, Op. 41
  • Sonata for Piano, Op. 38b
Setsuko Nagata, violin
Peter Vinograde, piano
Alyssa Reit, harp
David Creswell, viola
Matthias Naegele, cello
Albany Records TROY234
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Like so many composers neo-classical or -romantic, Nicolas Flagello got buried in the 1960s and 1970s, although he still managed (probably with his own money) to record some of his orchestral works for small labels. Barber, Piston, Diamond, and even the serial Aaron Copland went down, sneered at by the young and up-to-date the artistic Pepsi generation. However, thirty years later, the musical world (as opposed to people who "just listen" and who never lost affection for the works of these men) has rediscovered them. Our current young composers, while incorporating new techniques, haven't turned their backs on the old ones and are even looking at wonder of wonders popular sources, just like Haydn and Brahms did. Right now, most of those now middle-aged (and even old) who invested heavily in aleatorics, serialism, electronics, and "space" seem to have been swallowed up. Where's Tadeusz Baird, Earle Browne, Morton Subotnick, Warren Darcy, Jacob Druckman, Leslie Bassett, or George Perle? Now that John Cage, a self-proselytizer of enormous wit and charm, has died, who will revive his music? Art's a tough game.

Flagello spent almost all his career at the Manhattan School of Music, and the Albany disc represents somewhat of a tribute from his colleagues there. Both Nagata and Vinograde currently serve on the faculty. As to the Vox performers, David Amos has done yeoman's work reviving music by American neo-Romantics and traditionalist mavericks, and I'm happy to see a star like Oliveira taking an interest in music he'll probably make no money from (although he too connects to Flagello through his studies at the Manhattan School). However, the prime mover of these discs seems to be their producer, Walter Simmons, a long-time Flagello champion and whose advocacy I first encountered in the early Seventies, a particularly inhospitable time to put forward conservative, tonal composers.

The conservative vs. radical fight, usually expressed as tonality vs. 12-tone serialism, produced half-truths on both sides that, despite history, common sense, and the willingness to hear, continue to be put forward. As with most polemics, the object is to win and to stake out turf, not really to arrive at a truthful or a just appreciation. It turned out that the fight was largely irrelevant to the future, just like the 19th-century brouhaha between the Wagnerians and the Brahmins. Too much happened in the 20th century that doesn't march behind either banner. After the wars of the Sixties and Seventies, the academy took the "hard" music; the commercial markets the "easy." Young composers as usual went their own way. I doubt any of the American crop just coming to prominence can be explained by the critical fights of twenty to thirty years ago: Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Daugherty, John Adams, Jay Weigel, Steve Reich, David Schiff, Christopher Rouse, or Richard Danielpour, and the slightly older William Bolcom and John Harbison, among them. The fight, as I've said, has little to do with new music today. Style, like a hammer, in itself says nothing about quality. The particular use to which it is put does. In other words, there are no bad styles, only bad works. As the wars fade away, we have begun to listen again to works, not styles.

Recordings have played a large part in realizing this aim. In fact, I strongly suspect that the recordings on such labels as Mercury, CRI, Desto, New World, and Louisville kept the lights on "untouchable" composers flickering during their eclipse. Now, big names are rushing to record Barber, a composer viewed as washed-up for the last fifteen years of his life. Gerard Schwarz's breakthrough recordings of Howard Hanson's symphonies have sparked new interest in the major American modernists. Anybody want to bet that Schwarz had a large collection of Mercury LPs with Hanson conducting his own music?

The recordings here move Flagello into new, clearer light. I had damned Flagello's music with faint praise before, considering it well-made, but not especially memorable very much like his teacher Vittorio Giannini's, in fact. I was wrong. The chamber music is extremely well-made, especially the "Declamation" and the sonatas for violin and for piano. It's still not memorable, in the sense that Barber's and Copland's music is, but, just as important, it does involve a listener. At its best, it conveys urgency and intensity. Bloch comes to mind more than once, especially in the violin works, but Flagello's music eschews the grand sweep as well as the occasional grandiosity of that master. I suppose the composer he reminds me of most is Miklós Rózsa that kind of Romantic uneasiness although one can easily distinguish among works by the two. Above all, Flagello's music moves, and with a singing line. I think this the musical heart of him: that music move inexorably toward some overwhelming song. His works, like Barber's, usually climax on a basic motive in its most powerfully song-like form.

Flagello began writing music similar to Giannini's, but even here he differs in his rhythms, the shapes of his themes, and the emotional landscape. Flagello's music is more angular, the rhythms less conventional (although almost always within standard meters), and the music in general more restless. The Vox disc shows Flagello early and Flagello later, when he had hit upon his mature manner in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Again, the early music owes much to Giannini and, through him, to composers like Strauss, Respighi, and Pizzetti. In his liner notes, Simmons makes a case for Puccini and Rachmaninoff as well. I hear bits of Puccini in the orchestration, but I can't find Rachmaninoff anywhere. I most likely haven't heard the relevant works.

a Goldoni Overture represents a debt paid to his teacher. Giannini died before composing the overture to his final opera, and Flagello built one entirely out of his teacher's themes. That it is a vital, meticulously-written work I believe says something about Flagello's character. Despite Flagello's adherence to Giannini's harmonies and themes, this piece nevertheless comes across as quirkier than any Giannini I know, especially rhythmically, with volatile short outbursts like a nervous "ha!" in the lower brass and timpany and short, nervous runs in the winds. One hears the same qualities in the Overture Burlesca, a work similar in basic mood, this time with Flagello's more characteristically astringent harmonies and more jagged themes. It's also a work that, like Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" Overture, delivers more than its either its brief length or its genre (opera buffa overture) implies. In its roughly 4-½ minutes, it manages to travel some pretty deep emotional territory.

The Overture also showes a Flagello "fingerprint": pulsing eighth-note chords as a kind of rhythmic ostinato throughout the brief work. We find it also in the opening to the Piano Concerto #2. The work sounds like a great Romantic outpouring, disciplined by a few ticks of 20th-century neoclassicism. Walter Simmon's liner notes quite rightly emphasize the brilliance of its construction: virtually the whole thing themes and accompanying figures is built out of a rising third, minor and major. Indeed, Flagello's skill as a builder attracts a listener in its own right. It's not like the design of a stationary object, like a bridge, but of something temporal, like a fireworks display. The first movement explodes in propulsive rhythms and fistfuls of notes. The second movement pulls off the amazing trick of sustaining interest without resorting to a single memorable theme. Nevertheless, it has the air of telling you something important, and the transformations of the generating thirds blossom into truly beautiful singing. Perhaps Simmons had this movement in mind when he invoked Rachmaninoff.

The Piano Concerto #3 comes during Flagello's compositional maturity. Another hand orchestrated it, since Flagello by this time I suspect because he didn't want to spend time on full orchestration without the prospect of performance had gotten into the routine of leaving most of his orchestral works in short score, with indications as to instrumentation. Flagello composed the work just three years after his second. His compositional method remains the same (as far as I know it never changed): variations of one basic idea, in this case a downward scalar run of a fourth in the Aeolian mode, from which all three movements of the concerto flower. Yet, we find ourselves in a different, darker world. The second concerto seemed lit by a sunnier neoclassicism. The third explores more anguished territory. Flagello has managed to capture a wider emotional range with essentially the same tools.

The Credendum for violin and orchestra (William Schuman earlier gave one of his better-known works the same title) continues to deepen the shadows. At times the work reminds me of Barber's Second Essay in the depths it stirs. "Credendum" means an article of faith or belief, but the music doesn't serve up the standard inspirational hymn. The violin sounds more like "the voice in the desert… dry from weeping." This piece strikes me as a great work indeed.

The performances communicate marvelously. Rankovich strikes me as a thinking musician, rather than as a set of fingers. Rather than indulge himself in a star turn, Oliveira becomes primus inter pares, at times leading and at other times taking the orchestra's lead. Amos takes the orchestra through propulsive readings, probably on short rehearsal time, of unknown scores. Amos has pulled this trick off time and again. What he would do with, say, Pétrouchka and the Berlin Philharmonic frightens me a little.

The Albany disc misses this very high mark only slightly, mostly due to pianist Peter Vinograde, a pianist of great intelligence and fiery temperament. Nagata plays well, but it seems to me that, in both the Declamation and the sonata, Nagata plays "nice" and that Vinograde shapes the performance. I certainly miss him when he's not there, as in the Suite for harp and string trio. Walter Simmons finds the work relatively "unbuttoned," in the manner of Les Six. Roussel, maybe, but not Les Six. To my ears, the work's hallmark is the same unsettling Angst we find in the Piano Concerto #3, leavened only slightly by the more transparent instrumentation. Even in the gigue finale, where we'd expect to find high spirits, something disturbs the currents. We wait for the storm to break.

Vinograde does his best to sell the Prélude, Ostinato, and Fugue, a suite of three miniatures. I find that Flagello needs room to get the most out of his ideas. He doesn't really succeed as a miniaturist because the ideas are essentially too big. I found myself wanting Flagello to do more with what he presents me. However, the pieces are, as usual, finely worked. No such problems with the Piano Sonata, my favorite on the disc. This time, as Simmons points out, the generating idea of all three movements is the half-step, and many of the variants share a family look with the motifs in Vaughan Williams' Symphony #4, not that you'd mistake one for the other. The first movement begins as a moody, lyrical Andante, with outbursts typical of Flagello's music. The second movement follows as a questioning recitative, becoming declamatory in the climaxes, before subsiding again into unease. The finale, a highly contrapuntal toccata, throws of great nervous energy. It seems brilliantly suitable for the piano, suggesting rich, complex textures and sonorities while remaining eminently clear. The sonata receives a roaring performance from Vinograde, who follows the sonata's shifting moods. He turns from a singing line to crackling runs to short, powerful punches of chords, and convinces you that it all holds together. This is impassioned advocacy of a very high order indeed.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz