by Walter Simmons
FLAGELLO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Declamation for Violin and Piano. CORIGLIANO: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Eugene Fodor, violin; Arlene Portney, piano. LAUREL LR-137, produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.
THE VIRTUOSO HARP. Erica Goodman, harp. BIS CD-319 (compact disc), produced by Robert von Bahr. Music by FLAGELLO, TOURNIER, DUSSEK, FAURÉ. SALZEDO,PROKOFIEV
The music of Nicolas Flagello is one of our culture’s well-kept secrets. Very few of his major works have been recorded and most of the recordings that do exist present the music in rather mediocre performances. Yet Flagello is a composer ideally suited to the tastes and values of a large number of today’s listeners. Assuming the grand romantic stance without the embarrassment or self-conscious distancing of the “New Romantics,” his music is serious in tone, emotionally gripping, and tightly structured, while clearly revealing its roots in the language of turn-of-the-century Europe. Despite developmental techniques that are thoroughly traditional, Flagello’s own voice is so powerful and his conviction so intense that one quickly overlooks the suggestion of anachronism prompted by a birth-date of 1928 and a birthplace of New York City and instead focuses on the distinctive creative personality that emerges.
As one might expect from the foregoing description, the core of Flagello’s output lies in large-scale works for large forces—operas, symphonies, oratorios, concertos, and the like, of which there are many. Of course, the economics of today’s music world successfully ensure that such works remain in oblivion. However, the three pieces offered now in their first recordings, though relatively small in scale, are substantial, mature, and ambitious—representative of his best efforts. And in the fine performances and superb recorded presentations found here, they serve as excellent introductions for those listeners not yet familiar with the music of this remarkable composer.
The two sonatas date from the early 1960s, a period that saw the appearance of some of Flagello’s most significant works. Both are conventional in outer form: Each is 15 minutes in duration, and each consists of three movements. Both reveal to some degree the composer’s deep spiritual affinity with Ernest Bloch. The harp sonata, in particular, opens with a stern motif quite reminiscent of Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1. As the movement develops, its mood grows turbulent, reflected in writing of considerable textural complexity—quite demanding for the harpist, in view of the instrument’s essential unwieldiness in handling freely chromatic counterpoint. The violin sonata’s first movement also reflects a sense of agitation and turbulence, though it opens with a sweet wistfulness. Both movements are highly concentrated, allowing no gratuitous redundancy, yet with plenty of room for their dramas to unfold and for their passionate lyricism to soar.
The slow movements of both sonatas are also conveniently comparable. Both follow a favorite style-format of Flagello’s: the gloomy, dark-hued barcarolle. The Lento of the Harp Sonata is the highpoint of the work—a poignantly simple but hauntingly atmospheric melody framing a climactic central section. The slow movement of the violin sonata is more vocal in character, a somber recitative followed by a plaintive aria. Both movements are directly affecting and thematically memorable in a manner rare in music of recent decades.
Flagello’s final movements lean at times toward a grotesque jocularity that may seem a bit forced and obligatory. (At such times conventional principles of balance seem in conflict with a natural proclivity for darker, weightier subject matter.) The finales of both sonatas might be said to exemplify this tendency, though they do fulfill their roles successfully. The third movement of the harp sonata, in particular, comes close to sustaining the emotional and intellectual depth of the preceding movements, concluding what is certainly one of the most musically satisfying solo works in the instrument’s repertoire.
The Declamation is an intensely power-packed work of about eight minutes. Compared to the two sonatas, it is somewhat more “dissonant” in its harmonic language, more angular in its contours and patterns, and more terse and concentrated in its phraseology. (Its somewhat greater astringency is not attributable to its slightly later date of composition  as Flagello’s style has remained essentially unchanged since 1959, although his mature language displays considerable breadth and flexibility.) The work’s title comes from the solemn and declamatory prelude and postlude that present (and recapitulate) the motivic material developed in a central section marked by continual restless turmoil.
The early Violin Sonata of John Corigliano serves as a fascinating counterpart to the Flagello works. Though they occupy roughly the same stylistic “camp,” broadly speaking, among the various “schools” of American music, and are equivalently “modern” in their language, Corigliano’s is drastically different music: high-spirited, showy, and much more “American-sounding.” Its idiom is less individual—derived from Piston, Barber, Bernstein, and Prokofiev—and its import is far less personal. It is a fun piece, full of energy, graced by pretty melodies, and offering an appropriate measure of virtuosic excitement.
For some time Corigliano’s Sonata has been represented by a brilliant and authoritative performance by the composer’s father, with pianist Ralph Votapek. Laurel’s new release features far more up-to-date recording qualities, and Fodor’s performance is somewhat more polished, although not without some technical snags in a few particularly difficult passages. In the Flagello pieces, where there is no recorded competition, Fodor submits vigorous, assured readings that convey the impact of the music with authority. Pianist Arlene Portney offers solid support.
For the remainder of her harp recital, Erica Goodman provides a varied and enjoyable program. The 15-minute Sonatine by the well-known harpist Marcel Tournier inhabits a lush, richly textured impressionist vein. Listeners fond of this language will find it a rewarding piece that offers somewhat more depth than many pieces of the genre. And even Dussek, Bohemian contemporary of Muzio Clementi, is heard to advantage in an absolutely lovely sonata (in one of my least favorite styles). Harpist Carlos Salzedo is represented by a piece called Scintillation, which he wrote in 1936. This is a surprisingly abstract, austere treatment of several Latin elements to form a challenging display piece. The other selections are better-known: Fauré’s richly imaginative Impromptu and Prokofiev’s charming Prelude in C. Goodman surveys this demanding program with astonishing aplomb, appearing not to be fazed in the least by any of the technical challenges encountered—and the Flagello sonata provides more than its share. In fact, if there is fault to be found, it is in a certain stiffness and coldness of phrasing, where a bit of warmth and flexibility might have been stylistically appropriate. Nevertheless, her playing exhibits a degree of technical security and control rarely encountered on the harp. The sonic ambience provided by BIS is somewhat reverberant, but not at all unpleasant.