FLAGELLO: Piper of Hamelin

FLAGELLO Piper of Hamelin – Jonathan Strasser, cond; Bob McGrath (Narrator); Brace Negron (Piper); Troy Doney (Mayor of Hamelin); Ch & O of Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division – NEWPORT NCD 60153 (49:33 &) Live: New York City, 3/13-14/99

The Piper of Hamelin is the fifth of Flagello’s six operas, but — not surprisingly — the first to appear on a commercial recording. It was composed in 1969-70 for performance by the Preparatory (pre-college) Division of the Manhattan School of Music, the school where Flagello was closely associated– first as a student, then as a faculty member — for more than thirty years. The opera has been mounted a number of times since its 1970 premiere, but the production at hand marks the retirement of the composer’s widow, Dianne Flagello, from her position as director of the school’s Preparatory Division for the past 25 years. (Mrs. Flagello has worked tirelessly and vigorously as a devoted advocate of her former husband’s music for many years.)

As an opera intended to be enjoyed by and performed (largely) by children, The Piper is not only tailored for ease of execution, but also reflects a certain simplification of the composer’s musical style, as well as an overall lightheartedness of approach, with numerous musical “in-jokes” and some rather clumsy attempts at humor. Most significantly, Flagello replaced Robert Browning’s rather harsh and vengeful ending with one reflecting reparation and forgiveness. In Browning’s poem, the townspeople refuse to pay the Piper the agreed-upon fee for ridding the town of rats, so in retaliation the Piper entrances the town’s children, and whisks them away forever. In Flagello’s version, after despairing over the loss of their children the townspeople relent, and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper then reveals himself as the Spirit of Music and brings back the children.

Yet despite this overall “softening” on many levels, which occasionally verges on sentimentality, Flagello’s opera reveals a fundamental sincerity and authenticity of feeling, not to mention the craftsmanship of a master hand in shaping a work of considerable musical substance. A single motif, heard at the very outset, generates all of the opera’s thematic material, while unifying its contrapuntal fabric. Instead of emphasizing themes like betrayal and vengeance, Flagello has focused on the transformational and redemptive powers of music, with the Piper emerging as a not-terribly-veiled Christ-figure. All in all, the solidity of the work’s structure, and the sheer expressiveness of its music, fueled by a fervent sense of spirituality, combine to create a delightful, thoroughly convincing, and very moving experience.

Flagello chose a rather orthodox structural concept for the opera, framing its three short acts with excerpts from Browning’s 1849 poem (read effectively for this production by Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath — also an MSM alumnus). In between these readings, the story is enacted through recitatives and choral numbers, with only a couple of arias toward the end, leading to an ecstatic apotheosis created ingeniously from a cleverly-designed cumulative ostinato. The third act is preceded by a 5-minute “Intermezzo” that elaborates the emotional strands salient at that point in the opera through purely musical means into an autonomous entity that could easily be programmed on its own, along the lines of the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana (as has also been done with the “Adoration” from Flagello’s Judgment of St. Francis [recorded on Citadel CTD-88107], which the Piper “Intermezzo” resembles in its ascent from somber gloom to a uniquely Italianate heart-throbbing spiritual ecstasy).

The recording at hand was taken from two stage performances, as noted in the headnote above. This must be borne in mind, as stage noise is audible almost constantly throughout the recording; also to be considered is the fact that almost all the performers are teenagers — albeit very talented teenagers. Hence certain shortcomings regarding polish and precision are inevitable. On the other hand, the words are clearly distinguishable, graduate student Brace Negron is superb as the Piper, and the chorus and orchestra are sufficiently accurate, cohesive, and well-coordinated to represent the work to good advantage. In conclusion, listeners who have yet to be convinced of Flagello’s importance as a major figure among the traditionalist composers of the twentieth century are well-advised to turn elsewhere for evidence. However, those who have delved into his more serious abstract works and, impressed by their authenticity and substance, are interested in exploring his approach to other media, are urged to sample this charming excursion. Let me mention another significant treatment of the same story: Peter Mennin’s ruthlessly faithful adaptation of the Piper legend into a grim and gripping dramatic cantata, composed at approximately the same time as Flagello’s; the work is arguably that composer’s masterpiece — a magnum opus that still awaits its first recording.

L. BOULANGER: Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme” Faust et Hélène. D’Un Soir Triste. D’Un Soir de Printemps. Psalm 24 . Psalm 24. Pie Jesu. FAURÉ: Requiem

L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Faust et Hélène. D’Un Soir Triste. D’Un Soir de Printemps. Psalm 24 – Yan Pascal Tortelier, cond; City of Birmingham Sym Ch, BBC Phil O; Lynne Dawson (sop); Ann Murray (mez); Neil MacKenzie, Bonaventura Bottone (ten); Jason Howard (bs) – CHANDOS CHAN-9745 (73:24 &)

L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”Psalm 24. Pie Jesu. FAURÉ Requiem – Nadia Boulanger, cond; BBC Ch, SO; Janet Price (sop); Bernadette Greevy (mez); Ian Partridge (ten); John Carol Case (bar) – BBC MUSIC BBCL-4026-2, mono/analog (74:45). Live: Croydon, England, 10/30/68

Yes, it’s happened once again: Just a few months ago Timpani released the first new recording in many years of Lili Boulanger’s major choral works, in fine performances by the  Namur Symphonic Choir and the Luxembourg Philharmonic, conducted by Mark Stringer (see  Fanfare 23:1). Now, hard on the heels of that release — heralded in the 1999 Want List — comes another new recording, its contents largely overlapping those of its predecessor. And, unfortunately for the frugal Boulanger enthusiast, this new Chandos disc boasts advantages that make it indispensable, even for those who have already acquired the Timpani.

The most exciting feature of the Chandos disc is that alongside a magnificent performance of the Psalm 130 one finds the first modern recording of Faust et Hélène, a quasi-operatic adaptation of Eugène Adénis’s “lyric episode” (supposedly based on Part II of Goethe’s Faust) that earned young Boulanger the 1913 Prix de Rome. As the contest stipulated, she composed the work in complete isolation over the course of a four-week period. The result, which contains some pretty steamy, high-hormone music for a frail 20-year-old girl, is a 30-minute work of considerable lyrical and dramatic power in the Franco-Wagnerian operatic vein. (In a 1921 article on Lili Boulanger in La Revue Musicale, Camille Mauclair observed, “Her individual miracle is to have known life, without having learned, observed, or lived it.”) While a 1977 recording of Faust et Hélène conducted by Igor Markevitch has circulated for a number of years in various international guises, this new reading makes clear both the inadequacy of that recorded performance and the extraordinary brilliance of the work itself. In other words, the Markevitch performance made the work sound “impressive, considering . . .” while the new Tortelier reading provides a sense of overall cohesiveness that causes one to search one’s memory in vain for a comparable work of such power. (Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, perhaps, or Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu?) Conductor Walter Damrosch called it, “one of the masterpieces of modern music.” With soprano Lynne Dawson and tenor Bonaventura Bottone providing a remarkably apt limpid intensity, this performance makes unequivocally clear that Faust et Hélène joins the 13-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel and the setting of Psalm 130 as the composer’s indisputable masterpieces. An impressively thorough motivic analysis provided by annotator Gerald Larner further illuminates the work’s rich texture of musical meaning. (In all fairness, I should add that although I have identified the earlier recording by its conductor, Igor Markevitch was a fine musician, and not likely to have been responsible for the shortcomings of that performance; mediocre orchestra and vocal soloists, insufficient rehearsal time, and compromises in the recording itself seem to have been the chief culprits.)

All the other works on the Chandos disc — the brief setting of Psalm 24, the monumental Psalm 130, and the two orchestral tone poems — appear on the recent Timpani release as well. In each case I would have to say that, relative to Stringer’s readings, Tortelier’s are articulated with more clarity, so that textures are more transparent and rhythmic contours are more saliently perceived. However, the consumer who opts for the Chandos disc alone will miss not only Pour les funérailles d’un soldat and the Vieille prière bouddhique — both worthy pieces — but also the setting of Psalm 129, an intensely powerful work that — in a mere seven minutes — provides a persuasive and uncompromising introduction to the emotional and spiritual world, as well as to the musical language, of Lili Boulanger.

Also released within the past few months is a new reissue of the concert given by the BBC Chorus and Orchestra on October 30, 1968, to commemorate the 50thanniversary of Lili Boulanger’s death. This concert, conducted by the composer’s older sister Nadia, has been available for several years on Intaglio INCD 703-1. But, newly remastered, this BBC Music reissue offers much cleaner, more transparent sound than the earlier release. The performances of the three Boulanger works reflect great sensitivity and insight, and are, of course, of singular documentary significance. And Fauré’s Requiem, a masterpiece of sublime spiritual tranquility, receives a loving, deeply felt interpretation. But, despite the superb remastering, unavoidable sonic deficiencies and various blemishes in the orchestral playing relegate these renditions to more specialized collections.

In summary, the general listener who has yet to venture into the music of Lili Boulanger and is, perhaps, skeptical of the claims made on its behalf, is well advised to begin with the Chandos disc, which can be recommended without qualification. Listeners ready to experience her remaining masterpiece, Clairières dans le ciel, are referred to Hyperion CDA66726 (see Fanfare 18:4). The Timpani disc can then be regarded as an optional supplement, while the Boulanger-conducted BBC disc is a valuable and rewarding document for the already convinced. The estimable, venerable, and once-indispensable Markevitch-conducted program of choral works on Everest can now be safely retired, the shabby playing of the Lamoureux Orchestra disqualifying it from comparison with these more recent efforts.

ARGENTO Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe. Valentino Dances. A Ring of Time. Reverie. Reflections on a Hymn Tune. Valse Triste

ARGENTO Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe. Valentino Dances. A Ring of Time. Reverie—Reflections on a Hymn Tune. Valse Triste Ÿ Eiji Oue, cond; Minnesota O; Chad Shelton (ten); William Schimmel (acc) – Reference Recordings RR-91CD (65:19)

Dominick Argento is an interesting and unusual figure — not only because of his ingenious music, but also for the remarkable course his career has followed. Now in his early seventies, he is an American traditionalist composer of essentially the same vintage as Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski. Yet while these composers have had to overcome the neglect and disparagement of a musical establishment that regarded their work as old-fashioned, Argento — while less well represented than they on recordings — has managed largely to please critics and audiences alike, even winning the Pulitzer Prize for his vocal setting, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, premiered in 1975 by Janet Baker. It is difficult to explain the apparent ease with which Argento seems to have earned the high esteem in which he is held. I suppose that some would say he is simply a better composer than the three mentioned above. I would, however, respond that a) I don’t believe that this is true, and, furthermore, b) I have never seen anyone achieve success in the world of classical music as a result of merit alone. If pressed, I would attribute Argento’s success to two factors: 1) a gift for generating extremely intriguing compositional concepts, and developing them with great sophistication, so that they are pleasing to the general listener without seeming to pander, and reveal a lyrical inclination without being “melodic” in the old-fashioned sense; 2) his having managed somehow to associate himself with the high cultural profile achieved by the state of Minnesota through its many notable arts institutions (among which the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra are only the best known), for the mutual benefit of all parties. (Argento specialist Mary Ann Feldman writes, “Having settled in Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota, …Argento has composed works for every major musical organization in the State, including seven works commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, four of which appear on this disc.”)

Argento is best known as a composer of operas, and most of his music features the voice in one way or another. Therefore this new compact disc is notable for the light it sheds on the composer’s orchestral music (although a closer examination of the contents reveals the operatic origins of several of these pieces). The works selected span a 25-year period, from 1972 to 1997. The earliest is A Ring of Time, a quasi-programmatic symphony, subtitled, “Preludes and Pageants for Orchestra and Bells,” written in honor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 70th anniversary. Its concept offers a good example of the way Argento thinks: Anniversaries point to the passage of time; the passage of time is marked by the tolling of bells; four seasons mark a year; we can divide the day into four periods; we can divide a life into four stages. The result is a four-movement work: 1) Dawn/Spring/Youth; 2) Noon/Summer/Love; 3) Twilight/Fall/Struggle; 4) Midnight/Winter/Death. The music itself, however, is a bit sterile and over-conceptualized. Although there are occasional moments of stunning impact, and an achingly poignant Mahlerian epilogue, for the most part one is left with little but the sense of some Ivesian chaos and the sounds of lots of bells.

It is hard not to compare Argento with the many other Italian-American composers who have contributed so much to the symphonic and operatic repertoire, though perhaps such thinking smacks of ethnic stereotyping. Nevertheless, with all his sophistication and obvious artistic intelligence, Argento seems to lack the spontaneous wellspring of visceral musical creativity — pure, abstract, and passionate, unmediated by extrinsic thought-processes — that gives the music of so many Italian-Americans its tremendous power. Argento seems to need these complex programs to start his creative juices flowing. Perhaps this is why he is so drawn to opera. Even at his best, Argento always maintains something of a distance from his subject matter and the feelings he conjures, creating an emotional “buffer-zone,” a sort of post-Modern objectivity or neutrality.

The most striking piece on the disc is Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, a 16-minute orchestral suite shaped in 1986 from Argento’s opera The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, composed ten years earlier. Drawing its title from a poem by Mallarmé, the orchestral work comprises four connected movements, each of which features a setting of a portion of Annabel Lee, sung by an offstage tenor. The music is darkly evocative and sumptuously orchestrated, with a moodiness suggestive of Bernard Herrmann. My only reservation is the offstage tenor effect, which I find annoyingly neither-here-nor-there — obtrusive but not present enough to fit into the harmonic structure.

Valentino Dances, clearly the “featured work” on the disc, is a ten-minute suite drawn in 1997 from the composer’s thirteenth opera, The Dream of Valentino, written in 1994. Here Argento takes the opportunity to enter the tango market, trying his hand at the dance form that inundated the music world at all class levels like a tidal wave during the past decade (thanks largely to the ironically posthumous international sensation created by the singularly talented Astor Piazzola). With an orchestration that includes alto saxophone, accordion, and a large percussion section, Argento’s suite conjures a mood of exquisite refinement and sophisticated taste, not unlike the tango movement from Barber’s Souvenirs.

In a sense, Reverie — Reflections on a Hymn Tune is the most “conventional” work on the disc, but it is also perhaps the most fully realized. Composed in 1997 for the Minnesota Orchestra to showcase on a European tour, the work is based on a German hymn called “Ellacombe,” and is the sort of rhapsody in which the featured tune only gradually comes into focus. Yet despite its essentially diatonic materials and its character as an “occasional piece,” its form is highly imaginative and realized with impeccable taste, as the theme is refracted through various perspectives, eventually achieving a genuinely noble grandeur that is almost Mahlerian in impact.

The very brief Valse Triste was one of a number of birthday offerings composed for conductor David Zinman’s 60th birthday. It is a dark and dreamy waltz, with a nodding acknowledgment to Sibelius.

The Minnesota Orchestra has named Argento their “Composer Laureate,” and their performances here reflect the vigorous advocacy one might expect on behalf of the works of their obviously beloved colleague. Under the leadership of Music Director Eiji Oue, they provide richly textured, dynamically charged renditions that present the music in the best possible light. Offering a substantial portion of the output of a distinguished figure somewhat under-represented on recording, this is an important release for those interested in American orchestral music of the late 20thcentury.