by Walter Simmons
Flagello: Piano Sonata; Violin Sonata; Declamation for Violin and Piano; Nocturne for Violin and Piano; Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue; Suite for Harp and String Trio (Setsuko Nagata, violin; Peter Vinograde, piano). Albany TROY-234
Nicolas Flagello was one of the 20th century’s leading exponents of traditional late-Romantic musical values. Without ever repudiating this aesthetic outlook, he forged a personal musical language and a distinctive body of work shaped by his own temperament and embodying his own perspective on life.
Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. Something of a prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a child, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation and remaining there until 1977. During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.
During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. 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.
As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, 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. However, gradually Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing frequency.
Flagello’s early works–approximately a third of his total output–are unabashedly romantic in style. He made no attempt to conceal their obvious roots in the styles of Puccini, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and others—the music he loved. But even these early works display an intensity of conviction and a structural mastery that elevate them above the level of mere imitation.
In 1959 Flagello arrived at a more mature compositional voice, ushering in the most productive period of his life. During the 1960s alone, he composed more than 30 works, maintaining a remarkable consistency of both vision and craftsmanship. The luxuriant romanticism of his youth now gave way to a sort of Italianate expressionism, with a tighter phraseology, greater density of texture, astringency of harmonic language, and asymmetry of rhythm. But most important, a deeper, more personal quality emerges–dark, brooding, restless, and often agitated. There is a tremendous emotional intensity and concentration of effect, as every element is focused toward the fullest realization of the intended expression. It was during this decade that all the works on this recording were composed.
Declamation for violin and piano, which dates from 1967, is both concentrated in expression and meticulous in construction, packing a remarkable density of musical activity into a mere nine minutes. All the thematic material is derived from the declamatory cadenza with which the work opens (hence, the title) and the solemn incantation that follows. The body of the work is an agitated Allegro which subjects the motivic material to extensive development. The Allegro culminates in another, more elaborate, cadenza, followed by a return of the incantation, bringing the work to a majestic conclusion.
Prelude, Ostinato, and Fugue, written in 1960, is the first purely instrumental work of Flagello’s compositional maturity. While revealing the composer’s profound reverence for traditional musical forms, it also displays a harsher, more angular, less symmetrical language than one finds in his earlier works. The Prelude begins with a restless, searching quality, before building quickly to a massive climax and then subsiding. Ostinato consists of a set of variations over an ascending minor scale, which functions as a basso ostinato, appearing in several different keys. Beginning with a melancholy lyricism, it too builds to a tempestuous climax. TheFugue is a propulsive piece that makes enormous demands on the virtuosity of the performer. A three-voice exposition is followed by several developmental episodes, culminating in a chordal augmentation of the subject, marked furiosamente, which leads to a hair-raising coda.
Flagello composed the Nocturne for violin and piano in 1969. It is an example of “night music” in the manner of Ernest Bloch—a composer whom Flagello greatly admired, and who wrote many haunting pieces of this kind. Though beginning and ending unambiguously in B minor, the body of the piece maintains a rather tenuous hold on tonality, creating a somber mood of uneasy disquietude.
Suite for Harp and String Trio, dating from 1965, is unusual in being one of Flagello’s few lighter, diverting works from this period. It is also something of a rare stylistic excursion into the realm of French neo-classicism along the lines of “Les Six”. The Suite opens with a vigorous Petite Overture in simple sonatina form. This is followed by a gently wistful Valse, based on a piano piece originally composed in 1953. The work concludes with a lively Rondino alla Giga.
Sonata for Violin and Piano was composed in 1963. The first movement, an Andantino mossoin sonata-allegro form, is built around a theme first presented in a wistful, somewhat melancholy manner, but then transformed into an ardent, surging, declaration. This theme is developed, along with other material, through a course that is alternately agitated and intensely lyrical. The second movement opens with a somber recitative in the violin, punctuated by tolling bell effects in the piano. This soon leads to an aria, Movendo ma andante, suggesting a dark, brooding barcarolle—a type of mood-piece of which Flagello was especially fond. The brief finale is marked Allegro giusto and is a modified sonatina with the character of a burlesque in perpetual motion, bringing the work to a whirlwind finish.
Flagello wrote his Sonata for Piano in 1962. Like the Violin Sonata, it is a thoroughly traditional work in three movements, wholeheartedly embracing the rhetoric and ethos of the romantic virtuoso legacy, but with a turbulent emotional intensity uniquely Flagello’s own. Tightly constructed with an eye toward both expressive and motivic unity, all three movements are based on material that emphasizes the interval of a half-step.
The first movement, Andante con moto e rubato, is a standard sonata-allegro form, except that instead of the usual two themes, one idea in F minor, built from two short motifs, serves to fill the roles of both, appearing at times restless and searching, at others, bold and defiant, and at still others, introspective and ruminative. The second movement begins with a soulful, recitative-like passage, which leads into a gloomy, nocturnal barcarolle. This soon builds to a tremendous climax, which then subsides in dark resignation. The final movement, Allegro vivace guanto possibile, is a whirlwind perpetual-motion toccata that happens to be a full sonata-allegro form, two themes and all.