FLAGELLO. Piano Concerto No. 1. Dante’s Farewell. Concerto Sinfonico

LINER NOTES – NICOLAS FLAGELLO. Piano Concerto No. 1 Tatjana Rankovich (pn). Dante’s Farewel(orchestrated by Anthony Sbordoni) Susan Gonzalez (sop). Concerto Sinfonico New Hudson Saxophone Quartet. Rutgers Symphony Orchestra Kynan Johns (cond.) National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
John McLaughlin Williams, conductor. World Premiere Recordings NAXOS 8.559296

Walter Simmons, executive producer
Recorded: Mason Gross Performing Arts Center, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, New Jersey), November 6, 2004. 
Large Concert Studio, National Radio Company of Ukraine (Kiev), June 22-26, 2005

Publishers: Piano Concerto No. 1, Dante’s Farewell (Maelos Music, Inc., P.O. Box 363, New Rochelle, NY 10805); Concerto Sinfonico (To the Fore Publishers, 82 Copley Ave., Teaneck, NJ 07666)

Liner Notes

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last American composers to pursue traditional romantic musical values, intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music was a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression, a view not at all fashionable during the post-World War II years when Flagello’s creative personality was crystallizing, especially in the New York metropolitan area where he was located. Composers at that time were judged according to their “originality;” the pursuit of “experimental” techniques was given great importance. In such a milieu Flagello’s music gained little attention. Yet he held fast to his ideals throughout his life, producing a large and varied body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works, much of it still unperformed at the time of his death. However, with the greater tolerance of stylistic diversity that appeared during the latter decades of the 20th century, Flagello’s music began finding an increasingly sympathetic audience.

Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 to a family that had been musically active for generations. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. Giannini became Flagello’s mentor, and the two developed a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until the older man’s death in 1966. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years. (For a time during the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took a leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori. 

In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.” In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy.

In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

During the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, attracting the attention of a new generation of listeners. Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Midori, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and James DePreist are just a few of today’s leading performers who have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.


The three works presented on this recording span a period of 35 years, and encompass Flagello’s entire compositional career. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is his first large-scale work, Dante’s Farewell was written at the height of his career, during a period of intensely productive creative activity, and the Concerto Sinfonico was his last work. Each exemplifies what was perhaps Flagello’s favorite compositional medium: the concerted work, featuring a soloist (or soloists) against the backdrop of a symphony orchestra. As treated by Flagello, such works suggest an individual bearing witness to life’s spiritual and emotional torments, with the orchestra as empathic Greek chorus. Viewed autobiographically, the three works might be said to reflect his emotional life at the beginning, middle, and end of his creative life.

Flagello’s Piano Concerto No. 1—the first of three—was composed in 1950, as part of the requirements for his Master’s Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where it received its first performance that year. The soloist was Joseph Seiger, and the composer conducted the Manhattan Orchestra. The work has never been performed since then. Upon encountering the concerto, one is struck by two observations: One is the confidence with which Flagello addresses every convention of the romantic piano concerto, and in the process demonstrates a thorough mastery of traditional compositional technique. Several motifs are introduced at the outset, and these generate most of the work’s thematic material. This material is developed with a consistent logic: most of the thematic ideas appear in counterpoint with one another; the elaborate first movement displays an extensive cadenza, which leads directly into a brilliant fugato. Although tonal centers are not always clear and unambiguous, a general sense of tonality is always maintained. The second—and perhaps more remarkable—observation is the boldness with which the 22-year-old composer asserts his own forceful personality. Listeners familiar with Flagello’s other works will immediately recognize the vehement articulation, emotional turbulence, and surging passions that continued to characterize his work throughout his career.

The first movement, Allegro maestoso, introduces two main thematic ideas: the first, emphatic and defiant, containing an insistent ostinato motif; the second, characterized by a plaintive lyricism and irregular rhythmic phraseology. These ideas are developed with remarkable thoroughness throughout the course of this imposing movement—longer than the other two movements combined.

The second movement, Andante, is a melancholy nocturne, which rises to an impassioned climax before receding to a poignant conclusion.

The third movement, Allegro con brio, is scherzo-like in character, but, like the first movement, in sonata allegro form. At times this movement calls to mind the music of Bernard Herrmann, which Flagello greatly admired. The main theme, derived from the principal theme of the first movement, toys with hemiola patterns, while the secondary theme is characterized by an ascending series of fourths. Both ideas are developed energetically, until the secondary theme from the first movement joins the finale theme in what is in effect a recapitulation of the entire concerto. 


In 1959, Flagello’s musical language reached a new level of maturity: more intense emotionally, more dissonant harmonically, more irregular rhythmically, formally tighter, and less obviously tonal. The works that followed proved to be among his most powerful and deeply expressive creations. The year 1962 in particular was the most productive of Flagello’s career. In that one year he completed his Piano Sonata, Third Piano Concerto, the Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra, and the first version of a Te Deum. He also composed a work he termed a “dramatic monologue:” Dante’s Farewell, a setting for soprano and orchestra of portions of an unpublished text entitled Gemma Donati, by the prolific Italian-American poet and Latin scholar Joseph Tusiani (b. 1924).
Dante’s Farewell presents an episode in the life of the great Italian poet and statesman, through the words of his devoted wife, Gemma. In what soprano Susan Gonzalez describes as “somewhat like a mad scene,” Gemma tells of a nightmarish vision that came to Dante, warning him of danger to Florence, and his painful decision to leave her and their children, and depart for Rome on behalf of his city-state, never to return. The piece is unified by a motif built around the interval of a third, introduced near the beginning by the solo violin. (Flagello’s composition was completed several months before Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, a work of remarkably similar style and scope.)

During Flagello’s most productive years, when his music was rarely performed, he developed the habit of leaving his works—including those intended for orchestra—in short score, planning to orchestrate them when a performance appeared imminent. Unfortunately, many of these works—complete in every other respect—remained in short score at the time of his death. One of these was Dante’s Farewell. In 2003, at the request of the Flagello estate, composer and music editor Anthony Sbordoni completed an orchestration for the work. Sbordoni’s scoring displays an acute sensitivity to Flagello’s approach to the orchestra, along with remarkable skill in bringing to life the sonorities implicit in the manuscript. The orchestral premiere of Dante’s Farewell took place at Hunter College (CUNY), in October, 2004. Nicholas Ross conducted the Hunter College Orchestra, and Susan Gonzalez, heard here, was the soprano soloist.


The Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra was Flagello’s last completed work. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in November, 1985, with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. Although the character of much of Flagello’s music is dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation, and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his terminal illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the work as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the composite voice of a hypothetical protagonist. The Concerto Sinfonico has had numerous performances in the United States and in Europe, and has been transcribed for symphonic band as well.

The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme—a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme—is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and hope, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, which bring the movement to a defiant conclusion.

The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This section gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central portion that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to “the voice of God.” The passage ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.

The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with a variant of the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section, before the scherzo idea returns, now subjected to a thorough development. This eventually builds to another stark proclamation from “the voice of God,” followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)
For further information, visit www.Flagello.com

DANTE’S FAREWELL

(Text taken from the monologue Gemma Donati, by Joseph Tusiani)

Years, many years ago, I heard him moan in his sleep. When he woke, he said but this: “I have been through a forest dark with doom, and hell was in me, and no one, no one was saved.” Then he walked to the palace, pale and worn. Now I know that his dream was more than a dream and his fear more than death.

The meaning of that vision–that far vision in which he saw soft-veiled tears and stars, that woman of his spirit, Beatrice. She was God’s dream made visible to eyes in love with never setting light.

You may not understand, yet I must tell my grief, and utter no lament for it. I never knew of politics. I called myself a White, for Dante was a White.* To be the mother of his children, and the shadow of his light–it was my glory.

One night I heard him say: “Tomorrow dawn, I’ll leave for Rome.” I looked at him dismayed, for I knew he was feverish and weak; but Florence was in danger. I looked at him again as if to warn him against the perils of the road, the cold of nights, when, bursting in a rage of fire he cried to me: “Your holiness, how long shall we keep Christ a-bleeding on the cross? How shall we save our souls if yours is dead? Let Christ descend again, and rid his temple of thieves and hypocrites! Is God dead too?”

I kissed his hand with tenderness, and said: “O my good lord, you are so tired and ill.” He looked at me, his bride, and he was sad. “Gemma,” he said, “Take care of our children, as you have always done; birds with no more nest. Poor Gemma, go, and promise not to see me when I leave.” His kiss kept me awake and weeping.

Through the night I heard him pace–a wraith of war and death…!! Up and down, down and up, … I heard him pace.…And as he paused in anguish and despair, the river roared, raucous beneath the stones of Ponte Vecchio! The river roared!!

That dawn rose grey as if no day would follow. I saw him kiss his children’s dreaming brows. He came then, furtively, to me and kissed me….

*refers to the political faction with which Dante aligned himself

Tatjana Rankovich (pianist)

Tatjana Rankovich was born in Belgrade, Serbia, graduating with highest honors from the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. By age 18, she had already won three first prizes in national competitions in the former Yugoslavia. Immigrating to the United States the following year, she entered the Juilliard School, earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Ms. Rankovich has won numerous awards and prizes, among them the Gina Bachauer Scholarship, the Young Keyboard Artists International Piano Competition, and the Olga Koussevitzky Piano Competition. In addition to being a sensitive performer of a wide range of standard piano repertoire, she is also a persuasive advocate of American music, performing and recording little-known works by Vittorio Giannini and Paul Creston, in addition to Nicolas Flagello. Her recording of Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos was enthusiastically received by the press, and chosen as a “best of the year” release by Fanfare in 1996 and again in 1999. Ms. Rankovich has featured both American and European repertoire on her many international concert tours. Sponsored by a Fulbright Grant and by the U. S. State Department, she presented recitals throughout Serbia and Montenegro, as well as master classes at the Belgrade Conservatory. She has been frequent guest soloist with the Belgrade Radio Symphony, the Nis Symphony, and the Zagreb Philharmonic. During a 2003 tour with the Novi Sad Chamber Orchestra, a film documentary on her life and work was produced and televised. Ms. Rankovich is currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music.

Susan Gonzalez (soprano)

In addition to a rich and varied career in both opera and concert performance, soprano Susan Gonzalez has been active as a stage director as well. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, she went on to earn Master’s and Doctoral degrees at the Eastman School of Music. She has appeared with the Chicago Lyric Opera, New Orleans Opera, and with the Bolshoi Opera in Russia, and with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Annapolis Symphony, and the Mozart Players. She has been featured soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, and as a soloist in the major oratorios of Fauré, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart. Among her honors and prizes have been awards from the Metropolitan Opera, the George London, Leonard Warren, and Baltimore Opera Competitions, from the Liederkranz Foundation, and from the American Opera Association. She received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Rosina in a televised production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and her recorded recital of songs by women composers has drawn considerable positive attention. Dr. Gonzalez is currently Director of Performance at Hunter College (CUNY), where she teaches vocal technique and stages musical theater productions.

New Hudson Saxophone Quartet

Formed in 1987, the NHQ is dedicated to serious concert presentations of the saxophone quartet repertoire. Tonal purity and refinement and intimate musical rapport are hallmarks of NHQ performances. In addition to Flagello’s Concerto Sinfonico, the quartet has recorded the Saxophone Concerto by Calvin Hampton, and has appeared with the Charleston Symphony, Long Island Philharmonic, and the Greenwich (CT) Symphony. The NHQ can be heard on recordings for the Sonari, Eclectic, and Arizona University labels. 

Paul Cohen (soprano)

Paul Cohen (soprano) has appeared as soloist with the Group for Contemporary Music, and with many of America’s leading orchestras. He has recorded with such diverse groups as the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, Quintet of the Americas, the Philharmonia Virtuosi, Paul Winter Consort, and North-South Consonance, and is currently on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU, Montclair State, and Rutgers University.

Avi Goldrosen (alto)

Avi Goldrosen (alto) has been featured soloist with a variety of orchestras in the New York metropolitan area. He has also performed with the New Juilliard Ensemble, the New Jersey Saxophone Ensemble, and tours with the New York Theater Ballet.

David Demsey (tenor)

David Demsey (tenor) has performed with leading classical ensembles, as well as appearing with some of the leading jazz artists of our time. His essay “Improvisation and Concepts of Virtuosity” appears in the Oxford Companion to Jazz, and he has written two books on composer Alec Wilder. He is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University.
Tim Ruedeman (baritone) has appeared with both symphony orchestras and new music ensembles. He is a founding member of the contemporary chamber ensemble Flexible Music, and is currently on the faculties of NYU, William Paterson University, and C.W. Post/Long Island University.

Anthony Sbordoni (Composer, orchestrator, and music editor)

Anthony Sbordoni was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1947. He attended Hunter College (CUNY), where he studied with Louise Talma, Ruth Anderson, and Myron Fink. He is currently Ensembles Manager at Hunter College and Associate Orchestra Librarian for the American Ballet Theatre. As a composer, Sbordoni has concentrated on vocal and choral music, but he has also written incidental music for theatre and film, all of which display his dedication to the Neo-Romantic aesthetic. When it became apparent that Flagello had left many works in short score that he would never be able to orchestrate, the Flagello estate invited Sbordoni to provide the necessary orchestrations. In addition to Dante’s Farewell, Sbordoni has completed orchestrations for the short comic opera The Wig (1954), the Violin Concerto (1956), the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1962), and the full-length opera Beyond the Horizon (1983), along with several shorter pieces. As a result of his efforts, these valuable works have been brought to life and made viable for performance and recording.

Kynan Johns

Australian conductor Kynan Johns is currently Director of Orchestral Activities at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is also Associate Conductor of both the Chinese National Symphony and the Israel Symphony, Haifa. A graduate of the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide, Johns has studied with Kurt Masur, Eri Klas, Peter Eotvos, Ton Koopman, and others. He made his professional debut in 1997 with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and has since conducted all of Australia’s state symphony orchestras, and is a regular guest conductor throughout Australia and New Zealand. He made his debut as an opera conductor in 1999, with Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Opera Australia. This was followed in 2000 by Tales of Hoffman and Madame Butterfly (Australia) and Peter Grimes for the New Israeli Opera. He made his European debut in 2000, conducting the Netherlands Radio Symphony at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. To date Johns has conducted more than sixty orchestras and opera companies throughout the world, and was recently awarded second prize in the prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. He made his Carnegie Hall debut as one of eight finalists in the Maazel/Vilar conducting competition, chosen by Lorin Maazel from more than 400 applicants worldwide.

John McLaughlin Williams

American conductor John McLaughlin Williams has been highly praised for his outstanding interpretive abilities and engaging podium presence. Beginning violin study in Washington, DC, at the age of ten, he was chosen just four years later by the Cabinet wives of the Nixon Administration to appear as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in its first Kennedy Center concert series for Washington, DC, school children. He continued his violin studies at Boston University and the New England Conservatory, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music. There he pursued violin study with Martin Chalifour, composition with Donald Erb and Margaret Brouwer, and conducting with Carl Topilow. He was a member of the Houston Symphony, concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony, and has appeared as violin soloist with such orchestras as the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, South Carolina Philharmonic, Portland Symphony, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. As soloist, he gave the American premieres of the violin concertos by Arnold Bax and Joseph Jongen, and, in 1998, performed the violin concerto of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose chamber music he has also recorded. His first four recordings as conductor for Naxos, featuring works by American composers John Alden Carpenter, George Frederick McKay, and Henry Hadley, have brought him international attention and praise from such publications as Fanfare, Gramophone, Classic FM, International Record Review, American Record Guide and France’s Diapason. His conducting engagements have taken him throughout the United States, where he has focused on contemporary music and music by African-American and minority composers.

Picks of the Year: 1999

Listed below are the five releases that thrilled and satisfied me the most during the past year. First is a new, up-to-date recording (reviewed last issue) featuring fine performances of Lili Boulanger’s greatest choral and orchestral works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of French music of the early 20thcentury. It is not surprising that the first of Nicolas Flagello’s six operas to be recorded is The Piper of Hamelin (reviewed next issue). Although this charming adaptation of the classic fable was written for children, it reveals the same symphonic construction, thoroughgoing craftsmanship, and many of the spiritual themes found in the more serious works of this great American neoromantic. The Finnish Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of the strongest, most wide-ranging compositional voices of our time. Naxos has released a fine sample (reviewed in this issue) of his more accessible works, at a price low enough to make this a can’t-lose opportunity for all curious listeners who have yet to discover this fascinating creative figure. Although it does not meet my usual Want List requirement that the music be of the “neglected masterpiece” genre, I have decided to include the two-disc anthology featuring brilliant performances by Leon Fleisher (reviewed in this issue). I have always considered Fleisher to be one of the greatest of all mainstream pianists of mainstream repertoire; his performances illuminate those qualities that reveal the essence of the music’s greatness. Worthy of special mention are definitive readings of the Copland sonata and of the Liszt B minor. As I noted in my review (in 22:5), “Saxophone Masterpieces” truly lives up to its title, with superb performances of Creston’s classic sonata, Muczynski’s compact, soon-to-be-classic sonata, and Kabelác’s fascinating rarity. And finally, while acknowledging my own involvement as producer, I would like to mention as a postscript Tatjana Rankovich’s expert reading of the Flagello Piano Sonata, along with premiere recordings of the sonatas by Paul Creston and Vittorio Giannini (Phoenix PHCD-143; reviewed last issue).

BOULANGER Choral and Orchestral Works – Soloists/Stringer/Namur Ch/Luxembourg PO – TIMPANI 1C1046

FLAGELLO The Piper of Hamelin – McGrath/Strasser/Manhattan Schl. Of Music Prep. Div. Ch/SO – NEWPORT NCD 60153

RAUTAVAARA Symphony No. 3/Piano Concerto No. 1/Cantus Arcticus – Mikkola/Lintu/Royal Scottish Nat’l. O – NAXOS 8.554147

GREAT PIANISTS OF THE 20TH CENTURY – Fleisher – PHILIPS 456 775-2

SAXOPHONE MASTERPIECES (Music by CRESTON, KABELÁC, MUCZYNSKI, HEIDEN) – Rousseau, Klepác – RIAX RICA-1001

Picks of the Year: 1996

The Boulanger recording, originally released on LP in 1960, features five works of great beauty and depth of both spiritual and emotional content. Du Fond de 1’Abime, a setting of the Psalm 130, is a masterpiece and perhaps this tragically short-lived composer’s greatest work. This recording is indispensable and its reissue on CD is cause for rejoicing.

I cannot list my selection of the year’s five most musically significant releases without including the Flagello disc (reviewed in 19:6) , although as its producer, I realize that this appears to be a flagrant conflict of interest. My defense is this: Anyone who suspects that my citation of this disc is a crass attempt to increase my own financial returns is welcome to disregard the recommendation. I can only insist that I produced this disc because I think that the music is great and needs to be heard (rather than the reverse), and I invite readers to listen and decide for themselves.

The Dane Vagn Holmboe and the Englishman Edmund Rubbra have used the medium of the symphony as a vehicle through which to express their own individual metaphysical visions. Their works are lofty, eloquent, and accessible enough to be appreciated by most listeners motivated to participate in an aesthetic experience devoid of frivolous attractions. Perhaps its serious, reflective character has prevented this music from reaching a wider audience. These CDs (reviewed in 18:6 and 19:5) respectively), parts of complete recording cycles, provide excellent points of entry into deeply rewarding realms of expression.
Miloslav Kabelac and Lubos Fiser are Czech composers who have pursued visions of a more extreme emotional nature than Holmboe and Rubbra, giving them perhaps less general appeal. However, it is the very intensity of their extremism that I find especially compelling. Each composer has been represented individually on a number of recent recordings, but I chose this one (reviewed in 19:3) because it features both on one disc (the Kopelent work can be disregarded).

L. BOULANGER: Du Fond de 1’Abime. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Vielle
Priere Bouddhique. Pie Jesu. 
Markevitch/Elisabeth Brasseur
Chorale/Lamoureux Orchestra. (EVEREST EVC-9034
FLAGELLO: Piano Concerti Nos. 2 and 3. Credendum. Overtures.
Oliveira/Rankovich/Amos/Slovak Philharmonic, Kosice. VOX 7521)
HOLMBOE: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9. Hughes/Aarhus Symphony
Orchestra. (BIS CD-618)
KABELAC: Symphony No. 3. FISER: Concerto for Two Pianos and
Orchestra. KOPELENT: The Song of the Birds.
Soloists/Pesek/Czech Philharmonic. SUPRAPHON SU 0035-2 031
RUBBRA: Symphonies Nos. 4, 10, and 11. Hickox/BBC National
Orchestra of Wales. (CHANDOS CHAN-9401

Picks of the Year: 1995

Each year at this time, as the compact disc continues to replace concert performance as the musical medium of consequence, it is mind-boggling to review the annual bounty of unknown treasures that have entered the discographic repertoire. Four of my five choices this year celebrate such esoteric discoveries.  Of them, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah may not be considered truly obscure, being one of the most widely performed American operas. However, it is only now available on commercial recording, making it accessible to a much broader audience, in a gorgeous performance (reviewed in 18:3) that should be pretty irresistible to the mainstream opera lover. Nicolas Flagello and Vittorio Giannini rank with Samuel Barber as the foremost American avatars of the 20th-century consummation of traditional European late-Romanticism, and their gradual emergence into the musical marketplace is one of the most exciting developments of recent years. It was difficult to choose between the new Albany disc and the Flagello/Schwantner release on Koch International (both reviewed in 18:5), featuring works inspired by the words of Martin  appeal to a small group of enthusiasts. However, more and more listeners seem to be discovering the inexhaustible delights offered by his highly individual, meticulously crafted works The disc noted here (reviewed in 18:4) features new recordings of three of his most important compositions. The highly accessible yet thoroughly individual music of Arnold Rosner has developed something of a cult following during the past ten years. His latest CD (reviewed in this issue) demonstrates exactly why, with four of his best, most representative works. My one selection that does not feature little-known music is Robert Shaw’s glorious recording of the respective Stabat Maters of Poulenc and Szymanowski (reviewed in 18:4). These two deeply-moving works each of which represents its composer at his best, make a fascinating and most apropos pairing. 

FLOYD: Susannah. Nagano/Studer/Ramey/Hadley/Opera de Lyon. (VIRGIN 7243 5 45039 2; two discs)  
FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. GOULD: Harvest. Amos/New Russia Orchestra ALBANY TROY-143)  
MARTIN: Symphonie. Symphonie Concertante. Passacaglia Bamert/London Philharmonic. (CHANDOS CHAN-9312)  
POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Chorus/Orchestra. (TELARC CD-80362)  
ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Horn Sonata. Cello Sonata No. 1. Nightstone. Various duos. (ALBANY TROY-163)

Picks of the Year: 1993

Walter Simmons: Want List 1993

This year’s selection of the five most exciting releases to come my way features an international assortment of twentieth-century treasures. I have colleague Jim North to thank for bringing to my attention the marvelous program of Dutch post-romanticism, headed by Hendrik Andriessen’s neat and vigorous Fourth Symphony. Each of the remaining pieces is a treat as well. The disc, incidentally, is entitled, “400 Years of Dutch Music, Volume 8.”  Nicolas Flagello gets my vote as America’s greatest exponent of the post-romantic aesthetic, and this Phoenix release offers an excellent opportunity to discover the warm lyricism and dark, passionate intensity of his powerful personality (reviewed in 16:4). Bis deserves credit for undertaking the cycle of symphonies by the extraordinary Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, and this release is a fine introduction to his stirring and individual music (reviewed in 16:5). Korngold considered Das Wunder der Heliane his greatest work, and it is perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of this extraordinary talent. All enthusiasts of late-romantic Austro-Germanic opera will want to know this work (reviewed in 17:1).  Like Holmboe, Edmund Rubbra of England used the symphonic medium as a natural vehicle through which to express a unique and profound world-view. His Sixth and Eighth Symphonies are two of his loftiest and most sublime creations (see reviews in 16:3, 16:4 and 6:1, if your issues go back that far). 

H. ANDRIESSEN: Symphony No. 4; Ricercare; works by DIEPENBROCK, VAN GILSE, BADINGS. Spanjaard/Hague Residentie Orchestra (OLYMPIA OCD-507)

FLAGELLO: Contemplazioni di Michelangelo; Lautrec (Ballet); Cello Capriccio; Remembranceet al. Flagello/Soloists/Orchestra, Sinfonica di Roma. (PHOENIX PHCD-125)

HOLMBOE: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Hughes/Jutland Opera Choir/Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. (BIS CD-572)

KORNGOLD: Das Wunder der Heliane. Mauceri/Tomowa-Sintow, Welker, de Haan, Runkel, Gedda et al./RS0 Berlin. (LONDON 436 636-2; three discs)

RUBBRA: Symphonies Nos. 6, 8; Soliloquy. Del Mar/Philharmonia Orchestra; de Saram/Handley/London Symphony Orchestra. (LYRITA SRCD-234)

Picks of the Year: 1991

I was absolutely captivated by Dawn Upshaw’s recital of 20th-century vocal music reviewed in 14:4, p. 445), and I can’t imagine anyone reacting otherwise. Ernest Bloch’s two piano quintets are among his masterpieces, but have never been paired on recording before. Now, three different versions appear at the same time (reviewed in this issue).   All are excellent, but I’d pick Laurel’s if I had to pick one. Gerald Finzi’s setting of William Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality is probably his most impressive large-scale work reviewed in 14:3, p. 196), and is sure to touch the hearts of all those responsive to early 20th-century English choral music. Nicolas Flagello is my candidate for America’s greatest post-romantic composer, here represented by a generous program of works for piano solo and piano with percussion ensemble (reviewed in the previous issue.)   The Howard Hanson revival continues with the second installment of Gerard Schwarz’s survey of the symphonies (reviewed in 14:3, p. 211); all three works are strong, representative examples of the composer’s output.

BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and other vocal music by Harbison, Menotti, and Stravinsky. Upshaw/Zinman/Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Elektra/Nonesuch–9 79187-2).

BLOCH: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2; Cello Suite No. 1.  H. Karp/P. Karp/Pro Arte Quartet. LAUREL LR-848CD.

FINZI: Intimations of Immortality; Grand Fantasia and Toccata.Langridge/Fowke/Hickox/Royal Liverpool Chorus and Orchestra. EMI–CDC7 49913-2.

FLAGELLO: Piano Sonata; Electra; other works. Pierce/Paul Price Percussion Ensemble. PREMIER PRCD-1014.

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. Rosenberger/Schwarz/Seattle Symphony Orchestra/New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE-3092. 

FLAGELLO: Electra; Divertimento; Sonata for Piano; Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue; Etude (Homage to Chopin); Two Waltzes; Three Episodes.

FLAGELLO: Electra; Divertimento; Sonata for Piano; Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue; Etude (Homage to Chopin); Two Waltzes; Three EpisodesJoshua Pierce, piano; Paul Price Percussion Ensemble. PREMIER PRCD-1014 [DDD/ADD]; 68:47. Produced by Robert W. Stern. (Distributed by Albany Records)

For many years I have considered Nicolas Flagello to be the 20th-century’s most convincing American exponent of the traditional, late-romantic musical aesthetic, distilled and condensed into a concentrated, emotionally intensified language representative of our time. The particular strength and appeal of Flagello’s music lies in the consistency of metaphysico-emotional vision, in the power and eloquence of that vision, and in the craftsmanship — deeply mastered and confidently exercised — to give coherent, persuasive musical life to such a vision. Hence, the release of an all-Flagello recording — and one as superbly performed and recorded as this — is a special occasion and one that might prompt interested listeners to discover a composer whose music is far more rewarding than his obscurity might suggest. The reasons for Flagello’s strange neglect are in one sense tragic — in another, predictable and familiar; but they probably are best explored in another context

Although he is only 63 years old, Flagello has been prevented by a degenerative illness from composing at all since 1985 (though his output had begun to dwindle years earlier) However, during a single decade–1959 through 1968 (when he was in his 30s) — Flagello experienced a period of remarkable fertility, characterized by a mature stylistic coalescence and consistent creative generativity. During this time he produced some 35 works — nearly half his entire output — including an opera, a large symphony, several song cycles, a number of orchestral chamber, and choral pieces–and seven compositions for piano: three solo and four concerted works. Of these mature compositions for piano, four are presented here and–as the most substantial works on the disc–they offer some pretty convincing evidence for the claims with which I began this review, while also displaying the idiomatic fluency with which Flagello approached writing for the keyboard.

Flagello’s music — like that of Ernest Bloch, with whom he shares a strong aesthetic affinity — is an impassioned commentary on the human condition, with a particular focus on its personal and emotional, as well as its spiritual, crises. But, in place of the stern, Hebraic righteousness that pervades Bloch’s world-view, an Italianate visceral immediacy — as well as a reverent Italian-Catholic mysticism and faith — underlie Flagello’s. Upon initial acquaintance, the listener is likely to note echoes from the pantheon of late 19th- and early 20th-century composers. Indeed, Flagello’s language is a familiar one, overtly and unashamedly fed by a broad range of stylistic tributaries. Viewing the quest for “originality” as presumptuous, arrogant, and fundamentally irrelevant, Flagello openly acknowledged such reminiscences, regarding them almost as incidental acts of homage, in no way impeding the achievement of his artistic goals. (One is reminded of Brahms’ response to a listener, who observed the influence of Beethoven on his Symphony No. 1: “Any fool can see that.”) In the short, early encore-like pieces found on the disc — Etude, Two Waltzes, and Three Episodes — the references to other composers — Chopin, Ravel, and Prokofiev, primarily — are fairly explicit and obvious. However, in the four later, more mature works, Flagello’s own creative voice — both its vision and its language — dominates, subsuming and integrating the musical legacy within it.

The tersely constructed Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue dates from 1960 and, in less than ten minutes, reveals many facets of Flagello’s creative personality: a dark, restless urgency in the angular Prelude, a melancholy tenderness that builds to a stormy climax in the Ostinato, and a propulsive vigor in the Fugue. The Sonata for Piano, which appeared two years later, is similar to the Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue in style and tone, though it is more elaborately developed, both structurally and expressively. The work may be said to epitomize the virtuosic romantic piano sonata as a vehicle for intense personal emotion — but without the formal looseness and over-reliance on empty figuration that so often weaken such pieces as musical structures. Despite its undeniable emotional effusiveness and its use of a rhetorical syntax inherited from Liszt and Rachmaninoff, Flagello’s Sonata is a concentrated, tightly structured work, based entirely on the motivic elements heard at the beginning of the work. The first of its three movements is turbulent and explosive, with relief found only in somber moments of brooding reflection. The second movement is a gloomy, nocturnal barcarolle based on a hauntingly beautiful melody that develops to a tempestuous climax and back. This movement reveals Flagello’s mastery of dissonant harmony, as subtle distinctions and gradations of expression are eloquently accomplished through the manipulation of dissonant chordal structures within a decidedly and perceptibly tonal context. The third movement is a stunning perpetuum mobile that hurtles forward frenetically, ultimately culminating in a peroration of excruciating technical difficulty. Each movement of the Sonata is based clearly on a classical form, modified and adapted to accommodate the expressive requirements of the work itself Flagello’s Sonata is a masterpiece of its genre, and an alternative to the widely-played Barber Sonata, sure to challenge pianists and thrill audiences

The two piano works with percussion ensemble also date from this period: Divertimento was completed in 1960, on the heels of Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue, while Electra appeared six years later. Inexplicably, Flagello often chose titles with somewhat frivolous connotations — Burlesca, Capriccio, Divertimento — for works of patently serious — even bitter or pessimistic — content.  He responded to inquiries about this in a characteristically offhand manner, offering some ironic or far-fetched explanation for the apparent incongruity. (Such idiosyncratic taxonomy has probably confused many new listeners while attempting to grasp Flagello’s “message.”) The title Divertimento, for example, supposedly indicates that the piece is intended to be “fun” for the players. Yet however much “fun” it may be to play, there is nothing “diverting,” in the conventional sense, about this music, which immediately asserts an edgy, pugnacious virility, propelled forward by strongly-accented rhythmic irregularities. This spirit pervades the entire Divertimento, underlying the work’s ominous, darkly sinister slow movement as well. The ensemble of some twenty or so percussion instruments provides timbral accents that effectively support the piano, which remains in the foreground at most times. In keeping with the work’s harsh, brittle sonorities, the musical material itself is relatively astringent (within the composer’s overall rhetoric of romantic emotionalism), controlled and unified by extremely tight, economical motivic devices.

Much the same can be said — but even more strongly so — regarding Electra. What is, on the one hand, a three-movement character study of the tragic heroine from Greek drama is, on the other hand, essentially a concerto for piano and percussion orchestra — this time comprising some forty instruments. Not only is the piano part truly virtuosic, but the percussion ensemble is more deeply integrated into the musical substance, making for a powerful, densely-textured, and, at times, orgiastic work. By the composer’s own admission, Electra is his most “radical” or “avant-garde” effort. Yet from its sonata allegro first movement, introduced by a defiant proclamation of B-flat minor tonality and a subtle motivic reference to Strauss’ Elektra, to the Dies Irae-permeated “Death Dance” that concludes it, Electra — like all of Flagello’s music–is the unmistakable offspring of — and homage to — a deep, rich, and multi-faceted tradition.

Pianist Joshua Pierce, whose lengthy discography reveals an enormous number of first recordings — featuring a varied array of composers such as Morton Gould, Walter Piston, Miklos Rozsa, John Cage, Bohuslav Martinu, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and many others — has been associated with Nicolas Flagello and his music since his days as a student at the Manhattan School of Music. Flagello is quoted in the notes accompanying this recording as describing Pierce as “an instinctive pianist, totally at one with instrument, in a physical sense. This gives his playing a natural, impetuous quality that is right for my music.” There is little one can add to such a testimonial except to say that the qualities identified by Flagello are readily apparent to this listener. The Paul Price Percussion Ensemble, named after one of the twentieth century’s leading protagonists for the medium and the dedicatee (and conductor of the premieres) of both Divertimento and Electra, fulfills its role in each work with  crisp definition and great kinetic vitality.

This is an indispensable release for all those listeners who are participating in and enjoying the discovery — and re-discovery — of the American traditionalist composers of the twentieth century. (Piano aficionados in general are not likely to be disappointed either.)

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra; with the Portland Symphonic Choir,  Raymond Bazemore, bass and narrator. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7293-2H1 [DDD]; 58:54. Produced by Michael Fine.

FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. David Amos conducting the New Russia Orchestra. ALBANY TROY-143 [DDD]; 65:50. Produced by Vadim Ivanov.

Here are two exciting new releases that expand the discography of Nicolas Flagello (see overview of Flagello’s life and works at the front of this issue), while drawing attention to some other wonderful music as well. Released to coincide with the birthday of Martin Luther King in January, the Koch release highlights two extraordinary musical tributes to the black leader. As Coretta Scott King suggests in the program booklet, the Flagello and Schwantner represent very different approaches to their subject. Schwantner emphasizes King as the inspiring leader who encouraged the black people of this nation to persevere in their struggle to achieve racial justice. Flagello focuses on King as the embodiment of Jesus Christ in our time, martyring himself for the principle of universal love. Having been present at the premieres of both works, I can attest to the overwhelmingly powerful effect each produces in live performance.

Flagello’s Passion of Martin Luther King is constructed along the lines of an oratorio, in which five choral settings of Latin liturgical texts alternate with solo settings of lines taken from King’s speeches. Actually, the choral portions originated in a work entitled Pentaptych, which Flagello had composed in 1953, but which had left him with certain reservations. King’s assassination fifteen years later crystallized for him the realization that the eloquent words of the contemporary spiritual leader could provide just the human focus that the Pentaptychlacked. He immediately restructured the work, selecting excerpts from King’s speeches and setting them in an expressive arioso that blends seamlessly with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. As it stood in 1968, thePassion ended with a setting of “I Have a Dream,” followed by a choral Jubilate Deo, and it is this version, on a never-released recording with brother Ezio as soloist, that has circulated through the tape underground. However, in 1973, James DePreist, who was preparing to conduct the first public performance, persuaded Flagello to omit these two sections, for reasons that have never. been made clear to me. Flagello acquiesced to this request, composing an ecstatic new finale based on material that appears earlier in the work, and this is the version we now hear. Years later, Flagello conceded that DePreist’s suggestion improved the work’s effectiveness, but he remained fond of the “I Have a Dream ” Jubilate Deo sequence. He had begun to compose another choral work, to be called Psalmus Americanus, which would incorporate this material, but never completed it.

One of the reasons I have presented all this background information is to explain that the music of the Passion, though dated 1968, reflects many characteristics of Flagello’s ultra-Romantic pre-1959 style — more deliberate pacing, greater metrical regularity, more consonant harmonic language, and an unambiguous sense of tonality. As always, the orchestration is sumptuous and virile with no stinting on the climaxes, and the choral writing is gorgeous, with especially exquisite part-writing in the Cor Jesu and the Stabat Mater, the solo settings of King’s words are apt although, admittedly, the refined bel canto approach is a far cry from the robust rhetoric of black evangelical preaching. In truth, despite the extravagant grandeur of the music, this is a very personal, almost mystical, interpretation of Martin Luther King, rather than a work of social consciousness. Bass Raymond Bazemore lends poignant expression to his part, but a richer, fuller, more operatic voice could do better justice to it. James DePreist, who has conducted the work many times, continues to lend it his tremendous intelligence and musical sensitivity.

Joseph Schwantner was born in 1943 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for an orchestral work called Aftertones of Infinity. As one of the defectors from academic serialism, he and his work received a good deal of attention around that time. Schwantner developed a distinctive approach that combined an exquisite sensitivity to fanciful gestures and delicate, ethereal sonorities — reminiscent of George Crumb — with phantasmagoric verbal imagery, and frequent use of tonal, consonant musical elements, resulting in a colorful and accessible musical surface with some New Age qualities. For some reason, his work seems to have lost the spotlight more recently, although many of the younger orchestral composers who have emerged during the past decade have used his techniques.

New Morning for the World was composed in 1982, though, like the Flagello, it also draws upon material used in earlier pieces. It is scored for narrator and orchestra, and its musical content is more straightforward and conventional than in any other of Schwantner’s works known to me. Only its copious use of technicolor percussion effects dates it as a work of the final quarter of this century. In the manner of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the orchestra serves as a backdrop, creating a vivid framework of moods and emotions against which the extensive excerpts from King’s speeches are highlighted. Although the orchestra is frequently in the foreground, the text, with its own very musical sense of oratory, is the central point of focus, and retains a much stronger sense of its own identity than in the Flagello. The brilliantly scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent, hymnlike passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist. 

Schwantner’s work was initially recorded shortly after its premiere, with baseball star Willie Stargell as narrator. He handled his role with eloquence and dignity, and I have never been able to understand why that recording has not been reissued on CD. In my review (Fanfare7:2, pp. 307-08), I expressed a sense of ambivalence about the work, describing my reaction as “somewhat, like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” There is a tremendous reliance on sure fire musical devices, without the density of structure, or the sense of multiple dimensions that the Flagello offers. On the other hand, having revisited the work periodically during the twelve years since its premiere, I can testify that it retains its power. It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. As narrator, Raymond Bazemore offers a touching reading of King’s profound words.

Rather than producing the sense of redundancy that I feared, bringing together the two works and their differing perspectives enables them to complement each other beautifully, as Mrs. King states in her introductory notes, making this a recording of historical, as well as musical, significance.


Though less weighted with extramusical interest, the Albany disc is an equally rewarding new release, and features four premiere recordings.

Both the Flagello and Giannini works are flavored by Baroque stylistic features, though in the pieces by Flagello, these aspects are minimal. Serenata, composed in 1968 for chamber orchestra, is an entertaining diversion — virtually the only one of his mature works that is devoid of emotional stress. Its four-movement design is modeled loosely on the Baroque suite, but its musical content is thoroughly Romantic, and generally warm and cheerful in tone.

Flagello’s 1959 Concerto for String Orchestra actually displays explicit use of Baroque features in its outer movements, but not in the “Andante Languido” that forms the central slow movement, offered on this recording. Listeners new to Flagello’s music may think of the elegiac poignancy of Barber’s Adagio, combined with the somber severity of Honegger’s Second Symphony and the pathos of the Adagio lamentoso from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. But those familiar with his work know that this heartbreaking lament is echt Flagello in its purest form — one of his core creations (as well as one of his own personal favorites). The entireConcerto would be most welcome on recording, but the “Andante Languido” is certainly effective-and affecting — on its own.

Neoromantic adaptations of Baroque forms and concepts was a key preoccupation of Vittorio Giannini (Flagello’s teacher and mentor)-especially during the 1940s and 50s. The Concerto Grosso of 1946 and Prelude and Fugue of 1955 — both for string orchestra — are excellent examples of his approach, and listeners who enjoy Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, Creston’sPartita, and the Albinoni-Giazotto Adagio will certainly respond to these ingratiating pieces. The outer movements of the Concerto Grosso are bustling and vigorous, at times suggesting the composer’s proclivity for opera buffa, and with lots of eighteenth-century-style counterpoint. The slow movement is an impassioned expression of grief that combines Italianate lyricism with a Bach-like sense of gravity.

The Prelude and Fugue is essentially cut from the same cloth, but I like it even more. It is somewhat more tightly structured and equally heartfelt, with a terrifically exhilarating and beautifully elaborated fugue in quintuple meter. Giannini was an enormously appealing composer whose large and varied output remains unexplored. With this release, and the disc of twenty-four songs (ACA CM-20011-11: see Fanfare 16:1, pp. 242-44), perhaps the exploration is beginning. With most of Howard Hanson’s output available on recording, the equally accessible (and far better crafted) music of Giannini is the next logical step for the growing number of listeners drawn to this generation of American neoromantics.

As a bonus, the Albany disc includes the first recording of Morton Gould’s Harvest. This fourteen-minute tone poem scored for strings with harp and vibraphone is more ambitious and serious in tone than most of Gould’s better-known pieces, with less emphasis on overtly vernacular elements. It was composed in 1945, during the period when Gould was at the height of his fame — when his weekly light-music series on radio made him a household name, and Dmitri Mitropoulos was introducing his Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. If Flagello and Giannini were out of touch with their times, Morton Gould has always been a man of his time. Yet from today’s perspective, as the musical personalities of Flagello and Giannini seem to transcend their time and place, Gould’s work reveals so little other than its time and place, reflected through counterfeits of then-fashionable Harris and Copland works. In a certain sense. this makes Harvest one of Gould’s most revealing pieces.

David Amos conducted these recordings in Moscow with a group called the New Russia Orchestra. They play with considerable accuracy and sensitivity, producing some of the most incisive performances I have heard under Amos’s sympathetic direction. The sound quality of this disc, as well as the Koch disc, is superb.   

Flagello: Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet

NICOLAS FLAGELLOConcerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet (1985) (NY Premiere)

  • Allegro non troppo
  • Lento movendo (quasi all barcanola)
  • Allegro giusto

Manhattan School of Music Philharmonia, Lawrence Leighton Smith, conductor. The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet.

Nicolas Flagello, one of the last of America’s neoromantic traditionalist composers, was associated with the Manhattan School of Music for most of his professional life. Born in New York City in 1928, he began composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a child, he was introduced to Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), a distinguished composer and member of the MSM composition faculty. Giannini took on young Nicolas as a private student, fostering a long and intensive apprenticeship, as the maestro imbued his talented young student with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. When he was 17, Flagello enrolled at MSM, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1949 and 1950, respectively, then joining the faculty upon graduation. He continued to teach composition, theory and conducting at MSM until 1977.

Flagello composed prolifically throughout most of his life. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the 20th century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994 at the age of 66.

Flagello’s body of work includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber and vocal works, all of which embody his view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable position, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years, yet he held to his views with unswerving conviction, forging a unique creative voice shaped by his own temperament and perspective on life. Today, Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing frequency.

The Concerto Sinfonica for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra was the last work that Flagello completed. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in 1985 with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, who has championed a number of Flagello’s works.

Although the character of Flagello’s music is often dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the works as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the voice of a hypothetical protagonist.

The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme — a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme — is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and love, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, bringing the movement to a defiant conclusion.

The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This barcarolle gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central section that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to “the voice of God”. The central section ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.

The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section. Then the scherzo material is subjected to a thorough development, which eventually builds to another stark proclamation from “the voice of God,” followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. Serenata. Andante Languido. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. . GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. James DePreist conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra; Raymond Bazemore, bass and narrator. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7293-2H1 [DDD]: 58:54. Produced by Michael Fine  

FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. David Amos conducting the New Russia Orchestra. ALBANY TROY-143 [DDD]; 65:50. Produced by Vadim Ivanov 

Here are two exciting new releases that expand the discography of Nicolas Flagello (see overview of Flagello’s life works at the front of this issue), while drawing attention to other wonderful music as well. Released to coincides with the birthday of Martin Luther King in January, the Koch release highlights two extraordinary musical tributes to the Black leader. As Coretta Scott King suggests in the program booklet, the Flagello and Schwantner represent very different approaches to their subject. Schwantner emphasizes King as the inspiring leader who encouraged the black people of this nation to persevere in their struggle to achieve racial justice. Flagello focuses on King as the embodiment of Jesus Christ in our time, martyring himself for the principle of universal love Having been present at the premieres of both works, I can attest. to the overwhelmingly powerful effect each produces in live performance. 

Flagello’s Passion of Martin Luther King is constructed along the lines of an oratorio, in which five choral settings of Latin liturgical texts alternate with solo settings of lines taken from King’s speeches. Actually, the choral portions originated in a work entitled Pentaptych, which Flagello had composed in 1953, but which had left him with certain reservations. King’s assassination 15 years later crystallized for him the realization that the eloquent words of the contemporary spiritual leader could provide just. the human f ocus the Pentaptych lacked. He immediately restructured the work, selecting excerpts from King’s speeches and setting them in an expressive arioso that blends seamlessly with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. As it stood in 1968, the Passion ended with a setting of “I Have a Dream,” followed by a choral , Jubilate Deo, and it is this version, on never-released recording with brother Ezio as soloist, that has circulated through the tape underground. However, in 1973, James DePreist, who was preparing to conduct the first public performance, persuaded Flagello to omit these two sections, for reasons that have never been made clear to me.  Flagello acquiesced to this request, composing an ecstatic new finale based on material that appears earlier in the work, and this is the version we now hear. Years later, Flagello conceded that DePreist’s suggestion improved the work’s effectiveness, but he remained fond of the “I Have a Dream”/Jubilate Deo sequence. He had begun to compose another choral work, to be called Psalmus Americanus, which would incorporate this material, but never completed it. 

One of the reasons I have presented all this background information is to explain that the music of the Passion, though dated 1968, reflects many characteristics of Flagello’s ultra-romantic pre-1959 style — more deliberate pacing, greater metrical regularity, more consonant harmonic language, and an unambiguous sense of tonality. As always, the orchestration is sumptuous and virile with no stinting on the climaxes, and the choral writing is gorgeous, with especially exquisite part-writing in the Cor Jesu and the Stabat Mater. The solo settings of King’s words are apt — although, admittedly, the refined bel canto approach is a far cry from the robust rhetoric of Black evangelical preaching. In truth, despite the extravagant grandeur of the: music, this is a very personal, almost mystical, interpretation of Martin Luther King, rather than a work of social consciousness. Bass Raymond Bazemore lends poignant expression to his part, but a richer, fuller, more operatic voice could do better justice to it. James DePreist who has conducted the work many times, continues to lend it his tremendous intelligence and musical sensitivity. 

Joseph Schwantner was born in 1943 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for an orchestral work called Aftertones of Infinity. As one of the defectors from academic serialism, he and his work received a good deal of attention around that time. Schwantner developed a distinctive approach that combined an exquisite sensitivity to fanciful gestures and delicate, ethereal sonorities — reminiscent of George Crumb — with phantasmagoric verbal imagery, and frequent use of tonal, consonant musical elements, resulting in a colorful and accessible musical surface with some New Age qualities For some reason, his work seems to have lost: the spotlight more recently, although many of: the younger orchestral composers who have emerged during the past decade have: used his techniques. 

New Morning for the World was composed in 1982, though, like the Flagello, it also draws upon material used in earlier pieces . It is scored for narrator and orchestra, and its musical content is more straightforward and conventional than in any other of Schwantner’s works known to me. Only its copious use technicolor percussion effects dates it as a work or the final quarter of this century. In the manner of’ Copland’sLincoln Portrait, the orchestra serves as a backdrop, creating a vivid framework of moods and emotions against which the: extensive excerpts from King’s speeches are highlighted. Although the orchestra is frequently in the foreground, the text, with its own very musical sense of oratory, is the central point of focus, and retains a much stronger sense of its own identity than in the Flagello. The brilliantly-scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent., hymn-like passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist. 

Schwantner’s work was initially recorded shortly after its premiere, with baseball star Willie Stargell as narrator. He handled his role with eloquence and dignity and I have never been able to understand why that .recording has riot: been reissued on CD. In my review (Fanfare 7:2, pp. 307-8), I expressed a sense of ambivalence about the work, describing my reaction as ” somewhat :like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while. being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” There is a tremendous reliance sure-fire musical devices, without the den sity of structure, or the sense of multiple dimensions that the Flagello offers. On the other hand, having revisited the work periodically during the twelve years since its premiere,  I can testify that it retains its power. It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. As narrator, Raymond Bazemore offers a touching reading of King’s profound words. 

Rather than producing the sense of redundancy that I feared, bringing together the two works and their differing perspectives enables them to complement each other beautifully, as Mrs. King states in her introductory notes, making this a recording of historical, as well as musical, significance. 


Though less weighted with extramusical interest, the Albany disc is an equally rewarding now release and features four premiere recordings.

Both the Flagello and Giannini works are flavored by Baroque stylistic features, though in the piece by Flagello, these aspects area minimal. Serenata, composed in 1968 for chamber orchestra, is an entertaining diversion — virtually the only one of his mature works that: is devoid of emotional. stress. Its four-movement design is modeled loosely on the Baroque suite, but its musical content. is thoroughly romantic, arid generally warm and cheerful in tone. 

Flagello’s 1959 Concerto for String 0rchestra actually displays explicit use of Baroque features in its outer movements, but not in the “Andante Languido” that forms the central slow movement, offered on this recording. Listeners new to Flagello’s music may think of the elegiac poignancy of Barber’s Adagio combined with the somber severity of Honegger’s Second Symphony and the: pathos of theAdagio lamentoso from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. But those familiar with his work know that. this heartbreaking lament is echt Flagello in its purest form — one of his core creations (as well one of his own personal favorites). The entire Concerto would be most welcome on recording, but: the “Andante Languido” is certainly effective.– and affecting — on its own. 

Neo-romantic adaptations of Baroque forms and concepts was a key preoccupation of Vittorio Giannini (Flagello’s teacher and mentor) — especially during the 1940s and 50s. The Concerto Grosso of 1946 and Prelude and Fugue of 1955 — both for string orchestra — are excellent examples of his approach, and listeners who enjoy Bloch’sConcerto Grosso No. 1, Creston’s Partita and the Albinoni-Giazotto Adagio will certainly respond to these ingratiating pieces. The outer movements of the Concerto Grosso are bustling and vigorous, at times suggesting the composer’s proclivity foropera. buffa, and with lots of 18th-century-style counterpoint. The slow movement is an  impassioned expression of grief that combines Italianate lyricism with a Bach-like sense of gravity. 

The Prelude and Fugue is essentially cut: from the same cloth, but. I like it even more. It is somewhat more tightly structured and equally heartfelt, with a terrifically exhilarating arid beautifully elaborated fugue in quintuple meter . Giannini was an enormously appealing composer whose la rge and varied output remains unexplored. With this release, and the disc of 24 songs ( ACA C M-2001 1-11 , see Fanfare 16:1 , pp. 242-44), perhaps the exploration is beginning. With most of Howard Hanson’s output available on recording, the equally accessible. and far better crafted) music of Giannini is the next logical step for the growing number of  listeners drawn to this gener ation of American neo-romantics. 

As a bonus, the Albany disc includes the first recording of Morton Gould’s Harvest. This 14-minute tone poem scored for strings with harp and vibraphone is more ambitious arid serious in tone than most of Gould’s better-known pieces, with .less emphasis on overtly vernacular elements. It was composed in 1945, during the period when Gould was at:. the height of his fame — when his weekly light-music series on radio made: him a household name, and Dmitri Mitropoulos was introduc ing his Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. If Flagello and Giannini were out of touch with their times, Morton Gould has always been a man of his time. Yet: from today’s perspective, as the musical personalities of Flagello and Giannini seem to transcend their time and place. Gould’s work reveals so little other than its time anal place reflected through counterfeits of then-fashionable Harris and Copland works. In a certain sense, this makes Harvest one of Gould’s most revealing pieces.

David Amos conducted these recordings in Moscow with a group called the New Russia Orchestra. They play with considerable accuracy and sensitivity, producing some. of the most: incis ive performances I have heard under Amos’ sympathetic direction. The sound quality of this disc, as well as the Koch disc, is superb.