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CD Review

Nicolas Flagello

Symphony #1

  • Symphony #1
  • Sea Cliffs
  • The Piper of Hamelin - Intermezzo
  • Theme, Variations and Fugue
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/David Amos
Naxos American Classics 8.559148 63:49
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Rolling thunder.

Nicolas Flagello, born in 1928 into a musical family (his brother Ezio had a very successful operatic career; you can hear him, among many other places, on Leinsdorf's Verdi Requiem and on Böhm's Don Giovanni), unfortunately was born a little late. He caught very few breaks in his career. He came to notice in the late Forties and early Fifties, and his music shares affinities with Piston and Mennin. By that time, of course, post-Webernian serialism was emerging as the dominant idiom of the academy, so the academy and the journals associated with it largely ignored Flagello's work. Flagello hung around the periphery of my consciousness during the Sixties, with a series of recordings on small labels. I remember feeling vaguely beneficent toward the music, but nothing really grabbed me then. We like to think of ourselves as recognizing quality immediately, but that inner bell - unless attached to a brand name - seldom rings for me. I tend to need many encounters with a composer or a work. I admit I returned to Flagello only recently and only because of the Internet advocacy of Walter Simmons, who for a very long time has taught me an awful lot about American music.

Flagello didn't help his career much. He had bouts of depression, showed serious ambivalence toward his work, and engaged in self-destructive behavior which resulted, among other things, in alcoholism, wrecked marriages, and finally (in my opinion) degenerative disease. Although he died in 1994, he had been unable to compose or even notate music since around 1985. He died in a nursing home. There was so little interest in Flagello's music while he could compose, that he left many of his works in short score - with the idea that if a date materialized, he would then orchestrate. Ironically, interest in his music began to rise in the Eighties. Some things he got to, but his health problems essentially put paid to the scheme. Consequently, many works remained in short score. At least one has been orchestrated by another hand. Nevertheless, over the past few years, more recordings have appeared. With this Naxos CD, part of their "American Classics" series, more people can take a chance.

At his best, Flagello stands with the best the United States has. Unfortunately, I find the quality of his music variable. He's wonderful with the big, serious statement. Often, however, he has trouble with small forms, as with two items on this program. Sea Cliffs, for example, he composed for a recording series of "light classics" arranged for strings, which he also conducted. Considering that context, I suppose, I seem a patronizing grouch. But I happen to enjoy light classics. Compare Sea Cliffs to, say, "Morning" from Grieg's Peer Gynt and you get struck by its lack of melodic or harmonic memorability. It goes along pleasantly, it's not complete dreck, but you don't want to give it RAM in your mental Ipod, either. The intermezzo from Flagello's opera for children, The Piper of Hamelin, is no worse than many Verdi intermezzi, and it probably serves the complete opera very well. I missed, however, the strength of Barber's act IV intermezzo from Vanessa or even the "Adoration" from Flagello's own Judgment of St. Francis that allows it to stand on its own.

Still, those items take up very little time. The major works - Symphony #1 and Theme, Variations, and Fugue - show Flagello at the height of his game. I consider the symphony one of the great Modernist American symphonies, at the level of the Barber First or the Piston Fourth. It doesn't sound like either one, however. It's an incredibly difficult work to bring off - full of counterpoint at a Hindemithian level of complexity, changing meters, and subtly powerful argument. Flagello admired the Brahms Fourth, and his admiration shows. The thematic argument spans movements (much of the material for entire symphony derives from the opening measures). Flagello runs the danger of sameness, of going to the well too often, but he always eludes it. The piece deserves a detailed analysis, but such a thing would mean little to most readers, since they haven't heard the work. Furthermore, all that analysis would come to naught if the piece didn't yield an emotional payoff. One of the marvelous features of the symphony is that the listener needn't know the technical details to get caught up in its emotional power: turbulent, uneasy, and ardent. The passacaglia finale (although Flagello calls it a chaconne) is one of the finest I've heard. It gives the Brahms Fourth a run for its money, although the Brahms is even more focused. The Theme, Variations, and Fugue Flagello wrote during his studies with the Italian composer Pizzetti. Nevertheless, you couldn't call Flagello a beginner, since he had already written several large works. "Advanced studies" is more like it. Some of the variations are strict, some free. However, you don't think in terms of individual variations, but of a dramatic structure which encompasses the entire piece. Flagello grabs you by the collar and never lets go. The fugue - which builds from first to last bar - crowns the whole thing, after working you into a lather with virtuosic use of stretto (one voice of the fugue entering before another has finished). With Flagello, the time between entries grows smaller and smaller. By the way, he follows the same strategy in the symphony finale. Above all, Flagello writes entire movements, rather than sections of movements strung together, and the listener tends to experience them as such.

These are works that take more than one listening and more than one performance to achieve anything close to a true appreciation of their worth. Amos and his band go far enough, so that you know you're dealing with something special, but you know both works can deliver more. The performances are good enough - indeed, almost amazing, when you consider the music's difficulty - but only for now. The Bratislava band has noticeable problems with the symphony's first movement - the meter changes, the counterpoint - and seem to hang on by their fingernails. You long for sharper rhythms and attacks. Nevertheless, Amos has always had the ability to present music in long spans, so he takes to Flagello like ducks to soup. Recommended.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz