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