by Walter Simmons
MUSIC BY NICOLAS FLAGELLO (1928-1994)
A Goldoni Overture (5:34); Piano ConcertoNo.2 (Tatjana Rankovich, piano) (26:08); Credendum (Elmar Oliveira, violin) (14:07); Overture Burlesca (4:20); Piano Concerto No. 3 (Tatjana Rankovich, piano) (21:08) David Amos conducting the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Kosice. Recorded and edited: June 22-26, 1995 in Kosice, Slovakia Executive Producer: Walter Simmons Recording Producer: Rudolph Hentsel Recording Engineer: Gejza Toperczer
Nicolas Flagello was one of the 20th century’s leading exponents of traditional late-Romantic musical values. Without ever repudiating this aesthetic outlook, he succeeded in forging a personal musical language and a distinctive body of work shaped by his own temperament and embodying his own unique 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 regularity. This compact disc presents five works that have never been recorded before. They exhibit the full evolution of his creative development and embrace the many facets of his musical personality.
The Overture Burlescaand Piano Concerto No. 2 date from the 1950s and represent Flagello’s early compositional phase. The Overture Burlesca was composed in 1952, when Flagello was 24. first public performance was given by the Colorado Philharmonic in 1974, under the direction of Carl Topilow. Though brief, light, and spirited, the somewhat sinister flavor of its thematic material produces a restless undercurrent.
Flagello sought in his early works to make his own contribution to the Romantic heritage he loved, in the language that was most natural to him. Sounding “original” or “different held no appeal for him. What keeps these early works from sounding like pale imitations is their solid construction intense conviction, and authenticity of expression. Providing strong support for their surging melodies and powerful climaxes is the most thorough attention to formal values — motivic economy, thematic unity, and true symphonic development, built upon contrapuntal substructures that reveal as much appreciation for the architecture of Brahms as for the passion of Puccini and the virtuosity of Rachmaninoff. These were the values he learned from Giannini, yet characteristic usages-certain turns of phrase, a distinctive sad sweetness, and an explosive volatility of temperament — are distinctly Flagello’s own and anticipate the works yet to come.
These qualities are readily apparent in the Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1956 and one of the major works of Flagello’s early phase. On first hearing, the concerto conveys the familiar rhetoric of the genre, replete with thundering octaves, dreamy soliloquies, cascading arpeggios that lend an almost “Hollywood” quality to the throbbing melodies, and fistfuls of virtuoso passagework that build to huge climaxes. Yet despite its extroverted character, the concerto is brilliantly constructed, its entire substance derived from the six-note motif introduced by the piano at the outset. This motif, in a state of continuous metamorphosis and development, forms the basis of all three movements of the concerto. first movement, Allegro Giusto, is an abbreviatedsonata–allegro form, featuring an animated first theme in C minor and a melancholy secondary theme in A minor. After these ideas are presented and elaborated in a variety of guises, the movement culminates in a tremendous climax that combines all the material heard thus far.
The second movement, Andante Giusto, follows without pause, and features a warm, wistful melody in the woodwinds soon elaborated by the piano. Gradually this melody reveals itself as an inverted form of the concerto’s opening motif. This is transformed into a stentorian statement, before melting into the movement’s centerpiece — a variant of unabashed tenderness that rises to a luxuriant climax.
Once this outpouring recedes, a rather impish transition gradually leads to the finale:Allegro Quasi Presto. Almost as if to scorn the shameless sweetness of the preceding sections, this movement proclaims itself with a swagger, as the C minor motif from the opening movement now appears in a raucously harmonized C Major. This theme is developed in alternation with a minor-key inverted variant of the basic motif through the full range of traditional virtuoso pyrotechnics. Finally, as the energy builds, the concentration of material intensifies, and all thematic elements are combined toward a grand finish.
Only six years separate the Second from the Third Piano Concerto, but the differences are many. In 1959, Flagello attained his mature musical voice–a sort of Italianate expressionism characterized by tremendous emotional intensity and concentration of effect, as every element is focused toward the fullest realization of the intended expression. From this time until the late 1960s, Flagello produced music at a rapid rate, with a remarkably high consistency of both vision and craftsmanship. In the year 1962 alone, when the Third Piano Concerto was composed, he also wrote a Piano Sonata, a dramatic scene called Dante’s Farewell, the Capriccio for Cello and orchestra, and the first version of a Te Deum— all among his finest and most deeply searching creations. However, also at this time, Flagello developed the habit of leaving completed works in short score, intending to orchestrate them at a later time. Unfortunately, many such works remained in this state at his death. TheThird Piano Concerto was scored in 1994 by composer Anthony Sbordoni, who made a thorough study of Flagello’s orchestration technique before undertaking the task.
A comparison of the two concertos provides an illuminating example of Flagello’s stylistic maturation. The forms, means of development, and aesthetic principles are essentially identical, yet the works are entirely different in effect. In the later work there is a greater tightness of phraseology, density of texture, astringency of harmonic language, and asymmetry of rhythm. But most important, there is a deeper, more personal quality — dark, brooding, restless, and agitated, frequently erupting into cataclysmic explosions. Like the Second Concerto, the Third is based almost entirely on a single motif, in this case a four-note descending scale-pattern heard first in the violas at the opening of the Lento Quasi Adagio introduction. A short cadenza, which recurs at key points during the movement, leads into the Allegro Vivace ma Giusto, based on material derived from the opening motif. These ideas are developed and elaborated in a series of intensely charged episodes in various tempos. In contrast to the primarily lyrical character of the previous concerto, the tone here is turbulent and aggressive, until a return of the opening cadenza leads directly into second movement.
The Lento Andante opens as the horn introduces a somber statement of the main motif by the brasses. The piano develops this into a gloomy nocturne whose dolorous tone is relieved by moments of bittersweet tenderness. This leads directly into a lugubrious “ghost-march,” whose tortured mood culminates in a climax that seems to convey both triumph and despair
The finale, Allegro Molto, follows without pause character might be described as a demonic “tarantella from hell, in which the concerto’s basic motif predominates in clearly recognizable form. The movement pursues its alternately grotesque and tempestuous course, finally leading to a coda marked Con Piu Entusiasmo, in which the intensity reaches a febrile pitch, as the concentrated development of thematic material is focused toward a decisive conclusion.
Vittorio Giannini composed his last opera, The Servant of Two Masters, an opera buffa based on a play by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, shortly before his death in 1966. Although the opera was essentially complete, Giannini had not provided an overture. Several months later, early in 1967, Flagello decided to create one, basing it entirely on themes from the opera. A Goldoni Overture was first performed in Maiori, Italy, under the composer’s direction, in 1969. The short curtain-raiser captures both the playful exuberance and tender warmth characteristic of the opera, and of Giannini’s music in general.
Flagello composed his Credendum, for violin and orchestra in 1973, dedicating it to the memory of his father, who had died shortly after its completion. The work was not orchestrated until 1985, in preparation for its premiere performance by violinist Ansgarius Aylward, with the Buffalo Philharmonic under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. The title “Credendum” suggests a profession of belief, expressed herethrough a highly emotional statement in one rhapsodic movement. Although anchored in tonality at strategic structural points, the work conveys a sense of restless instability through long passages without a strong tonal center.
Credendum opens with an impassioned violin soliloquy presents three short motifs within its opening moments. These motifs are developed by the violin through a succession of brief episodes evoking intensely contrasting emotional states, ranging from passages of mystery and contemplation to moments of jarring nervous agitation that erupt in tumultuous tutti explosions. Toward the work’s conclusion these shifts of affect seem to resolve into a warmly heartfelt hymn whose lyricism is made all the more touching by its juxtaposition within a context of turbulence. However, even this emotional oasis culminates in an anguished climax, followed by an epilogue of sad resignation.
Obviously the expression of belief suggested by the title is thoroughly abstract, its meaning left to the imagination of the listener.
David Amos is one of the leading figures in the revival of interest in the traditionalist wing of 20th-century American composers. His many recordings of works by Alan Hovhaness, Paul Creston, Arnold Rosner, Vincent Persichetti, Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and others have attracted the attention of a generation of listeners previously unaware of this music Indeed, his path-breaking recordings have even inspired other conductors to investigate this exciting repertoire, so long neglected. Born in Mexico City, Amos received his training at San Diego State University, supplemented by graduate work in conducting at the University of Indiana. His wide-ranging career has taken him around the world, to lead such orchestras as the Israel Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, and the New Russia Orchestra, to name just a few Amos is also the founder of the International Musicians’ Recording Fund, an organization dedicated to the promotion of worthy but lesser-known 20th-century music.
Tatjana Rankovich was born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, where she won three first prizes in national competitions by the time she reached the age of 18. Coming to the United States the following year, she studied at the Juilliard School, where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees, working with Josef Raieff. Her other teachers have included Clifton Matthews, Benjamin Kaplan, and Zelma Bodzin. Ms. Rankovich has concertized throughout the United States, Europe, and South America, winning awards at the Young Keyboard Artists International Competition and the Artists International Auditions. In addition to her premiere recordings of Nicolas Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, she gave the first public performance (in 1992) of his 1958 Symphonic Waltzes, recording them for Citadel Records, and performing them to great acclaim on international recital tours. Ms. Rankovich is currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music
Elmar Oliveira is one of today’s most active and widely acclaimed violin virtuosos, in demand for concerto and recital appearances throughout the world. Born in the United States to Portuguese parents, he studied with Ariana Bronne and Raphael Bronstein at the Manhattan School of Music, where he became acquainted with Nicolas Flagello and his music. In 1975, he won the Naumburg Competition and, three years later, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow — the only American violinist ever to win the Gold Medal. In 1983 he received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. Throughout his career, Oliveira has balanced a mastery of the standard violin repertoire with an active interest in discovering and presenting worthy lesser-known works, introducing audiences to music by such composers as Andrzej Panufnik Benjamin Lees, and Karel Husa, as well as Nicolas Flagello. His many recordings have appeared on a variety of major labels and comprise an enormous range of repertoire, leading to several Grammy nominations.