FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds”. The Land. Serenata. Symphonic Waltzes.

FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds”. The Land. Serenata. Symphonic Waltzes. Nicolas Flagello conducting the Orchestra da Camera di Roma and I Musici di Firenze; Ezio Flagello, basso; Tatjana Rankovich, piano. CITADEL CTD-88115 [ADD; DDD ; 74:38. Produced by Tom Null.

This is the third major Nicolas Flagello release to appear within the past twelve months (see Fanfare 18:5, pp. 18-30; 188-90 , suggesting that this most important post-Romantic is finally gaining the attention his music has warranted for so long. This new disc, entitled “Flagello Conducts Flagello,” is something of a miscellany, containing one reissue, two first releases of performances originally recorded 25 years ago (but never issued), and one brand-new recording.

The most auspicious entry is the reissue of the 25-minute orchestral song cycle entitled The Land, featuring the composer’s brother Ezio as soloist. This recording dates from 1962, when the singer was 31, before he had attained a reputation as one of the world’s leading operatic bassos (he was still described as bassbaritone at the time). The original LP was available briefly on the obscure Internos label, then was reissued by Musical Heritage Society during the mid 1970s. I suspect that there are many aficionados of vocal music who would be delighted by this recording, but never knew it existed.

Flagello composed these six settings of nature poems by Tennyson when he was 26, expanding the rather slight, unpretentious verses into warm and luxuriantly romantic songs that culminate, with the concluding “Flower in the Cranny,” in pantheistic revelation. Brother Ezio’s contribution displays sensitive musicianship as well as a gloriously rich voice The other especially noteworthy item is the one non-composer-conducted entry: the Symphonic Waltzes for piano solo. (These are different from theTwo Waltzes of 1953 that appear on Joshua Pierce’s all-Flagello piano CD [Premier PRCD-1014].  The Symphonic Waltzes were written in 1958 and later expanded and orchestrated into the Lautrec ballet suite The original piano version was never performed until 1992, when the young Serbian pianist Tatjana Rankovich introduced them at her New York debut recital. Since then, she has become something of a Flagello specialist, performing the waltzes with great success at recitals throughout the United States and Europe (She has also recorded Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos with the Slovak Philharmonic — a release that may be on the market by the time this review appears.)

The three Symphonic Waltzes date from the brief juncture between Flagello’s earlier and later stylistic phases and are uncharacteristic in their deliberate evocation of turn-of-the-century Paris, although the composer’s distinctive fingerprints are everywhere evident to those familiar with them Ms. Rankovich obviously has a deep affinity for this music underlining its roots in the 19th-century virtuoso tradition, and playing it with the same sensitivity to nuances of phrasing and tonal coloration that one would apply to the mainstream works of say, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, to name the most salient examples More than simply an accomplished pianist, she is an intelligent artist, capable of bringing to life a work that has never been played before, and making it sound like an established masterpiece.

Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds,” was first recorded by the Cornell University Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Marice Stith, in 1979, shortly after their world premiere performance. Reviewing that recording (Fanfare 3:2, pp. 68-9), I wrote, “This is an impressively compact work of striking psychological tone, in which hauntingly affecting mental states are crystallized through a meticulous musical syntax.” Flagello’s music generally displays a gloomy demeanor, and this work is no exception. Neither in sonority nor in spirit does it resemble ordinary “band music,” yet it displays a wiry solidity that distinguishes it from the neo-romantic lushness of the composer’s orchestral music. The subtitle “Symphony of the Winds” has an enigmatic double meaning, as Flagello appended metaphorical rubrics to each movement: “Torrid winds of veiled portents”; “Dark winds of lonely contemplation”; “Winds of rebirth and vitality.” Characteristically, the work’s emotionalism is tightly controlled by a masterful sense of structure and coherence.

Completed two years after the large-scale tragic-heroic Symphony No. 1, Symphony of the Winds is less than 20 minutes in duration and is scored for a small ensemble consisting of the wind and percussion sections of a standard symphony orchestra.  The Cornell performance, however, used a much larger ensemble, and was neither precisely accurate nor sensitively interpreted. This Italian performance does use the smaller ensemble and is more accurately executed, but leaves plenty of room for improvement on all levels. One of today’s more proficient wind ensembles, such as, for example, the much-recorded Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony, could make a spectacular impression with this powerful and provocative work.

The Serenata is generally warm and sunny in spirit. Scored for chamber orchestra, it is loosely modeled on the format of the Baroque suite, but with only the most remote musical references to that era. Its first recording was released in early 1995, on a terrific disc that also featured music by Vittorio Giannini and Morton Gould (Albany TROY-143), played by the New Russia Orchestra under David Amos. That release appeared on my 1995 Want List. This Citadel performance, originally recorded in 1968, shortly after the work was composed, but never issued before, doesn’t approach the Amos, rendition with regard to quality of solo and ensemble playing — or even interpretation. Flagello may have been a great composer, as I believe he was, but he was not a great conductor, and most of the recordings made under his direction suffered from infinitesimal budgets and virtually no rehearsal time.

Nonetheless, listeners who are discovering Flagello’s music will definitely want this disc for the beautifully sung The Land, the definitively performed Symphonic Waltzes,and the only currently available recording of the Symphony of the Winds.