Paul Creston (1906-1985), Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), and Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) all were Italian-American composers who were associated with a fairly traditional (one might say "old-fashioned") style of writing. Giannini and Flagello enjoyed a long-lasting mentor/pupil relationship. And, as an interesting bit of trivia, the latter two men were brothers to well-known opera singers; Giannini's sister Dusolina was a soprano, and Flagello's brother Ezio was a bass-baritone.
This CD is an illuminating collection of their major works for solo piano. Creston's attractive sonata, which opens the disc, runs the coolest emotional temperature. Written in 1936, it comes from the early portion of his career. In the opening movement alone, its moods shift from a toccata-like purposefulness to lyricism to a sort of neo-Baroque playfulness. The second movement is a wry classical dance, and the third is a richly-harmonized barcarolle. The finale is a moto perpetuo again liberally flecked with nuances characteristic of the Italian Baroque. The Six Préludes come from 1945. They supposedly illustrate "rhythmic structures" (for example, "regular subdivision overlapping") to which the composer (largely an autodidact) devoted his theoretical energies. The rhythmic distinctions, I'm afraid, are lost on me, but that didn't keep me from enjoying this vivid and varied set of Préludes; they don't feel academic at all. The fourth Prélude seems to want to turn into a rhumba.
Giannini's sonata comes from the very end of his life, when he was the victim of dwindling artistic recognition, a lost marriage, and poor physical health. Unsurprisingly, it is a work of dark and almost violent passions; the first movement will leave you feeling decidedly storm-tossed. The central movement contains this CD's most immediately notable music. It has the air of a morbid cradle-song. Hypnotically, it builds to a climax marked by a shift from minor to major tonality and the introduction of an ineffably sad melody. The finale is a grim toccata that places high technical demands on the pianist.
Flagello's waltzes - one mistily sentimental and the other diabolical - were written in 1953. The composer eventually recycled them into larger works, but they stand very well on their own. His piano sonata, which dates from 1962, is almost as intense as his mentor's, and there are other at least superficial resemblances between the two works. (Flagello's is more grotesque, however.) Its opening movement wails with a frustrated passion that remains unquenched. The central movement ("alla barcarola," according to the composer) brings contrast but no relief as it too is characterized by a dark intensity. My comments about the last movement of Giannini's sonata apply to the corresponding movement of Flagello's, except the latter composer employs sonata-form construction in his.
Tatjana Rankovich grew up in Belgrade and received degrees from Juilliard. She has won multiple awards and now teaches at the Mannes College of Music and the Dalcroze School of Music. Phoenix's notes indicate that she is a specialist in American music. I found her to be a dedicated pianist with the technical and interpretive skills needed to be a good advocate for these works, although there were times when I felt that she could have been even more passionate, and that her fingerwork could have been even more clear. Phoenix's engineering is very fine, and the annotations by producer Walter Simmons add a lot to the listening experience.
The Creston and Giannini works receive their première recordings with this CD.
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle