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CD Review

Nicolas Flagello

  • Piano Concerto #1 (1950)
  • Dante's Farewell (1962, orch. Anthony Sbordini)
  • Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet & Orchestra (1985) *
Tatjana Rankovich, piano
Susan Gonzalez, soprano
* New Hudson Saxophone Quartet
National Radio Symphony of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
* Rutgers Symphony Orchestra/Kynan Johns
Naxos 8.559296
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Summary for the Busy Executive: It was a dark and stormy night …

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) had the bad luck of trying to make his career in the Fifties and Sixties, when the post-Webernian school and the avant-gardistes seemed to take over and pass him and post-Romantic and neoclassical Modernists by. There was a hue and cry for "music of our time," a hunger for new sounds, and a curiosity for new techniques. A moral fervor entered the discussion, usually a bad sign: the artist must assume the obligation of revealing the Spirit of the Age to the age itself. To the charge that the new music was ugly, the new guys replied that the age was ugly. The new music simply mirrored it. Those composers who stuck to traditional harmony and melody (or expanded versions thereof) had made themselves irrelevant.

More than fifty years later, it seems to me something else went on. The argument raged over means, rather than over results. Fine works were dismissed a priori, on both sides of the divide. It was as if all you had to do was follow the Ten Rules for a Successful Piece. The radicals had one set of rules, the conservatives another. The radicals tended to reject traditionalists out of hand. The conservatives (which usually meant fans of tonally-based composers) rejected any atonal piece. New Great Hopes came to temporary prominence and then sank into obscurity, mainly because of the blandness of their output. The conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote a philosophical treatise that "proved mathematically" the artistic bankruptcy of atonal serialism, which merely goes to show that a great musician can succumb to aesthetic silliness just as easily as your garden-variety yahoo can. As in any age, great work appears more rarely than the mediocre or even the okay. Furthermore, the! lack of general audience enthusiasm and the hermeticism among the crowd in fashion – apparently talking to the very few – hint that perhaps many of the new kids on the block weren't quite as in touch with the Spirit of the Age as they believed and claimed. Lest anyone misunderstand me, I'm a fan of many in the "hard" camp of postwar music – eg, Boulez, Carter, some Stockhausen, Dallapiccola, Nono, Berio, Babbitt, and others – but not because they represent the Zeitgeist. Any particular age, after all, passes very quickly. If that's the only thing these men did, why would anyone remain interested in their work? In fact, their fans have kept interest.

Flagello in his lifetime couldn't get arrested as a composer, his work suffering from the same sort of neglect as that of the late output of Peter Mennin (who shares a similar dark mood), Walter Piston, and Samuel Barber. I don't believe he ever received a major commission or award, other than a study Fulbright. Most of his performances came from colleagues at the Manhattan School of Music where he taught. In his later years, he left his scores in "working" form, unwilling to orchestrate unless the possibility of performance arose. Unfortunately, he succumbed to a degenerative brain disease, possibly brought on and certainly exacerbated by alcoholism, which left him unable to orchestrate, let alone compose, and no music comes from his last years. "Stubs" of work remain just that. However, interest in Flagello's music has begun to stir and certain works have been orchestrated by other, generally sensitive, hands.

This CD brings together scores early, middle, and late. The earliest, the first piano concerto, already shows the characteristics of the mature Flagello: emotional storms, vigorous, even angry counterpoint, and the gift for the memorable, song-like theme, free of cliché. The composer wrote three piano concerti (numbers 2 and 3 available on Artek AR0002-2), all very different. The second shows traces of an almost-sunny interwar neoclassicism. The third (orchestrated by another) is altogether more dark, more stormy, and the neoclassicisms burrow down deeper below the surface. The first comes almost as a surprise, in many ways modeled on Rachmaninoff's second concerto, with that work's gestures neatly updated. Indeed, at one point, about halfway into the first movement, one encounters an outright steal, but undeniably highly effective. I strongly suspect he either had the older score on his work table or listened to a recording several times with more than casual attent! ion. Flagello composed this concerto as part of his award of a Master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Not only does he keep tight, sovereign control over motific development (I count essentially two themes for the entire movement, which, by the way, runs longer than the other two combined) and which ends with a blazing fugato, but he also creates a powerful and genuine Romantic expression. It also shows a deep understanding, not only of the orchestra, but of the virtuoso piano. There's a tremendous cadenza that, unlike many, manages to grip the listener, not only as a display of keyboard jockitude, but for its own musical sake. In some ways, here and there, it reminds me of the Barber piano concerto, but Flagello beat Barber to the punch by over a decade. It's just the kind of modern concerto that has a shot at real popularity, and it hadn't been played in over fifty years. This is, astonishingly, its first recording.

The second movement generates a long song out of one simple idea: a rising scale and its opposite, a falling one. I find this the most characteristic movement, the one that foretells the mature Flagello. The Rachmaninoff tropes have disappeared. Flagello still sings, but in his own way, with a certain beautiful regret and yearning. The finale, an insistent halling with powerful cross-accents, drives to the finish. This is a concerto designed to wow, and it does so without condescension or pastiche.

The concerto holds no terrors for Serbian pianist Tatjana Rankovich (now on the faculty of the Mannes College), one of my favorite performers, who routinely takes risks on unknown repertoire. She undoubtedly knows like the back of her well-muscled hand the Russian school of piano writing Flagello makes use of. She plays with a fiery power. At the end of the recording I, without giving it a thought, stood up. Imagine what she would do to a live audience. John McLaughlin Williams gives her sturdy, worthy support from an orchestra which, under other batons, I have known to lie there like a lox. Nobody dogs it here.

Dante's Farewell is one of those "stub" works, orchestrated in this case by composer and musicologist Anthony Sbordini. He does a routine job, and one can't help wondering what "touches" the composer himself would have come up with. The work stands in the genre of dramatic scena, very difficult for a composer to pull off. It succeeds on just about every level, except memorable tunefulness. The text, by Joseph Tusiani, takes the form of a monologue by Gemma, Dante's wife, lamenting his final departure from the city. It begins as a kind of dark reflection on the "rocking" motif of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and quickly assumes a passionate, tragic character. Gemma Donati came from the family pilloried in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Dante placed Schicchi in the eighth (of nine) circle of hell – mad and eating human flesh. Gemma goes through rage, despair, fear, and tenderness, and Flagello builds his scene masterfully, the musical climaxes and falls beautifully ! placed. This may indicate a major opera composer. I know Flagello composed opera (his brother Ezio had a lovely operatic career) but haven't heard any. Perhaps he lacks the theatrical moxie, although certainly not the ability to raise just about any emotion he wants.

The Concerto Sinfonico represents Flagello's last completed work. He wrote it for the unusual combo of concertato sax quartet and orchestra for the simple reason that a saxophone quartet commissioned him. You might think, from such a circumstance, the piece a dutiful chore or a stunt, but instead you confront a very powerful score indeed. Furthermore, the entire concerto springs from a three-note motif, introduced at the beginning. The opening movement brings to my mind the image of the relentless pursuit by the angel of death, surrounding a slow section of apathy, despair, and hopes dashed, before the wings start beating again. The second, slow movement sets the rhetoric of the first movement on its head. Instead of fast-slow-fast, we get slow-fast-slow. It starts off as a barcarolle, meditating on the main theme of the slow section of the first movement, and thus shares some of the funk. Here, however, the mood changes into something more accepting. The acceptance!, however, doesn't last, as a violent episode intervenes, culminating in my favorite moment in the concerto: a stunning sequence of chords Flagello called "the voice of God." I wouldn't go so far, but I certainly don't deny its clout. The barcarolle returns to wind the movement down. The third movement erupts as a demonic scherzo. In "feel," if not in musical language, it reminds me of the "grotesque" movements in Ernest Bloch, where the mouth seems pulled into a grisly risus. All this builds to another apocalyptic cry, finished by the "voice-of-God" chords of the second movement. At that point, the composer seems to seek a genuine, upbeat resolution, as a harp-accompanied theme strives for the light (a telling, subtle use of "bright" percussion here). But the sky glowers again, and we once more hear the wings of the dark angel, stamping hope into the ground for good.

Susan Gonzalez does a marvelous job in Dante's Farewell – a superb singing actress and declaimer of text. Unfortunately, the sound image hampers her. She sounds too forward, the orchestra too flat, too "boxy." In fact, one hears details in the orchestral tutti only with difficulty. I have to blame the microphone placement. In the Concerto Sinfonico, the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet and the Rutgers Symphony play more scrappily than the Ukrainians. Even so, the work itself carries them along. Producer Walter Simmons, a long-time Flagello champion, provides very helpful liner notes and has given us another winner. All in all, I think one of the major releases of the past year.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz