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CLASSICAL  December 2006

CLASSICAL December 2006

Subject:

Flagello's First Piano Concerto

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 07:04:19 -0600

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text/plain

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     Nicolas Flagello

*  Piano Concerto No. 1 (1950)
*  Dante's Farewell (1962)
*  Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1985)

Tatjana Rankovich (piano); Susan Gonzalez (soprano); New Hudson Saxophone
Quartet;  National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin
Williams; Rutgers Symphony Orchestra/Kynan Johns.
Naxos 8.559296 (DDD) TT: 65:28

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 cliche.  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 attention.  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.

Steve Schwartz

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