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CD Review

Nicolas Flagello

Orchestral Music

  • Symphonic Aria (1951)
  • Mirra: Interlude and Dance (1955)
  • The Sisters: Interludio (1958)
  • Violin Concerto (1956)
  • The Rainy Day (1958)
  • The Brook (1978)
  • Beyond the Horizon: Ruth's Aria (1973)
  • Canto (1978)
  • Polo I (1979)
  • Polo II (1980)
Elmar Oliveira, violin
Susan Gonzalez, soprano
National Radio Symphony of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
Artek AR-0036-2 74:02
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Summary for the Busy Executive: At least one classic work in an effective performance.

The latest disc has arrived from violinist Elmar Oliveira and producer and critic Walter Simmons, both of whom have played major roles in the revival of the music of American composer Nicolas Flagello. Flagello came up in the early and middle Fifties, and his career lasted roughly thirty years. For reasons that have little to do with quality, the musical establishment mainly ignored him. To some extent, this stemmed from the rise of dodecaphony and the avant-garde, but Flagello apparently had a harder time than most. He doesn't seem to have moved in the right circles, even in the right tonal circles. After all, there were tonal composers who still received decent, even prestigious commissions as well as well-established arts organizations desperately looking for the next Blue-Eyed Tonal Hope. Most of Flagello's performances and currency came from his colleagues at the Manhattan School of Music as well as from a series of LPs of his own music he conducted with mainly Italian orchestras. I have no idea who paid for them. Flagello continued to compose to about 1980, when a degenerative brain disease, probably exacerbated by alcoholism, made even routine musical tasks impossible.

Indeed, most of the music on the program has been orchestrated by another hand, composer Anthony Sbordoni. Flagello, an amazingly quick orchestrator, left much of his orchestral music in short score, with the idea that if a performance materialized, he would finish the instrumentation then. Unfortunately, by the time his music had begun to creep into notice again, his brain had deteriorated too far. Hitherto, I've found Sbordoni's results variable, ranging from routine to inspired. Here, he rings the bell every time. Sbordoni, a pupil of the great Louise Talma (another composer who needs revival), admits that he doesn't score like Flagello, and we expect such a thing only unreasonably. It would have been nice to have Flagello's own realizations, but Sbordoni deftly gives you the character of each work, and sometimes a bit more. He definitely knows his way around an orchestra. I'm grateful to him for taking the time.

The Symphonic Aria is a meditative lament – a genre Simmons calls a favorite of the composer's. Flagello takes a simple idea and worries it throughout the piece, building a long arch, with a relatively brief way down at the end. The interlude from the opera Mirra and the "interludio" from the opera The Sisters are different examples of the same general kind of work. In a way, all three meditations remind me of Barber's First Essay and Adagio or, better yet, of Hanson's Merry Mount, with the slow interludes analogous to the "Love Music" and the dance reminiscent of the "Children's Games." Nevertheless, Flagello's music is darker than Hanson's and shows greater psychological complexity. Most of these slow movements seem to lean almost entirely on sequence, supposedly the lowest form of musical development. Yet, like Wagner at his best, they're never boring. One phrase grows inevitably out of another, gradually forming giant spans, and they are dramatic in the primary sense of the word: full of character and conflict. No technique is a priori impure. It depends on which sequences you want to talk about. The "interludio" grips me the most, the most interesting to me both structurally and psychologically. Flagello brings together the three main characters of the opera into this little entr'acte: a brutal father, a yearning daughter, and her jealous sister.

The Violin Concerto stands as the major work on the program. It shares a point of view with the Barber concerto, although for my money, it's as good or maybe better than Barber's (of course, a classic). Its three movements – symphonic allegro-aria-rondo – require a violinist not only with flexible fingers, but solid musicianship and a big tone as well. It is virtuosic, deeply passionate, symphonic in argument, and downright tricky all at once. It's a concerto with an obvious need for a great soloist, a super-Heifetz, perhaps. As in so many of his big works, Flagello paints dark, not simply because of the simple equation that dark=profound, but because of his basic nature. He earns, as they say, everything he wrings out of you, not just because he's written in a minor key. I would say most listeners will be swept by the emotional waves. A few might even be blown away by the hurdles the composer expects the soloist to clear. But this concerto goes beyond simple swoon and flash. Thematically, it is extremely tight, particularly the first movement, a sonata-allegro which plays with two main ideas. The second of these seems an outgrowth of the first, so we get the effect of a monothematic movement of incredible richness. The andante movement, to my ears, reverses variants of the two ideas. The finale is a tilt-a-whirl, a phantasmagorical caprice. The ideas span the unusual to the downright weird, and here and there themes from earlier movements pop up. However, like a thrill ride, Flagello makes sure you hang on. The bizarre doesn't give way to the incomprehensible. Indeed, if it did, the movement wouldn't have such a dangerous, powerful impact. By me, this is one of the great American (perhaps even Modern) concerti. Just consider that this is not only its first recording, but its first performance, and that the composer never heard it.

The rest of the CD fills out with orchestrated songs. All began for voice and piano, but the composer liked to orchestrate his songs as the opportunity arose. For these, with the composer's precedent, Sbordoni supplies the instrumentation. I find it curious that most of these songs don't rise to the level of the instrumental works. After all, Flagello comes up with wonderful tunes all the time in his orchestral pieces. He is an extremely "singable" instrumental composer. Most of the song-tunes derive, I think, from Barber, particularly the Barber of Vanessa and especially the marvelous "Doctor's Aria." Flagello can certainly construct a melody as well as a beautiful arch to a song. However, unlike Barber, he doesn't always choose particularly good texts (he often wrote to his own). There's nothing that keeps a song to a meretricious poem from achieving something great. Brahms and Schubert wrote many with this handicap. Nevertheless, if you have a terrible set of words, I think you need a great melody that overcomes the defect. At any rate, you need something. What's missing in most of these things is that special musical spark that makes you forget you're hearing drivel. Flagello's settings of Tennyson's "Brook" and Longfellow's "Rainy Day" will not revive these poems any time soon. Fortunately, Tennyson's and Longfellow's reputations don't depend on these. I found the main interest for most of the songs in Sbordoni's orchestrations.

The exceptions here prove Flagello's settings of two polos, from late in his career. The polo is a Spanish poetic genre, and Flagello gives his idiom a flamenco tinge. It's enough to put some excitement and unpredictability into the music. The difference in effectiveness from the sad-sack stuff that preceded startled me. Here are two vocal pieces worthy of the interludes and the concerto.

Oliveira gives a knockout performance of the concerto. You also might want to check out his recording of Flagello's Credendum (CD now available on Artek AR-0002-2, another winner; see my review). Susan Gonzalez is a wonderfully dramatic, communicative singer. Her performance of Flagello's Dante's Farewell (Naxos 8.559296) will sear you. Here, however, she's a few cents annoyingly flat, practically throughout. It's not so noticeable with the polos, but it can set your teeth on edge in the more po'-faced songs. Also, her diction is so clear, you can hear her sing the wrong words in the Longfellow ("smoldering" rather than "moldering," the latter much more appropriate to a rainy day). You expect a certain level from someone as distinguished as Oliveira, and he certainly delivers. John McLaughlin Williams, although a relatively young conductor, has an enviable discography so far. I can't praise his work enough. I have no idea how good an orchestra the Ukraine has, but Williams makes it sound very close to top rank. None of these scores has received a recording before – all premières here – and these guys sound like they've been playing them for years.

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz