About this Recording
8.559296 - FLAGELLO: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Dante's Farewell / Concerto Sinfonico
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Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994)
Piano Concerto No. 1 • Dante's Farewell • Concerto Sinfonico

 

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last American composers to pursue traditional romantic musical values, intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For Flagello music was a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression, not a fashionable position during the post-World War II years when his creative personality was crystallizing, so his music gained little attention. Yet he held fast to his ideals throughout his life, producing a large and varied body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous other works, of which much remained unperformed at the time of his death. With the greater tolerance of stylistic diversity that appeared during the latter decades of the twentieth century, however, Flagello's music began finding an increasingly sympathetic audience.

Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 to a family that had been musically active for generations. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. He became Flagello's mentor. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years. Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori. In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

During the years since his death, Flagello's music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, attracting the attention of a new generation of listeners. Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Midori, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and James DePreist are just a few of today's leading performers who have found in Flagello's work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.

The three works presented on this recording span a period of 35 years, and encompass Flagello's entire compositional career. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is his first large-scale work, Dante's Farewell was written at the height of his career, during a period of intensely productive creative activity, and the Concerto Sinfonico was his final composition. Each exemplifies what was perhaps Flagello's favourite compositional medium: the concerted work, featuring a soloist (or soloists) against the backdrop of a symphony orchestra. As treated by Flagello, such works suggest an individual bearing witness to spiritual and emotional torments, with the orchestra as empathic Greek chorus. Viewed autobiographically, the three works might be said to reflect his emotional state at the beginning, middle, and end of his creative life.

Flagello's Piano Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1950 as part of the requirements for his Master's Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where it received its first performance that year. The soloist was Joseph Seiger, and the composer conducted the Manhattan Orchestra. The work has never been performed since then. Upon encountering the concerto, one is struck by two observations: one is the confidence with which Flagello addresses every convention of the romantic piano concerto, and in the process demonstrates a thorough mastery of traditional compositional technique. Several motifs are introduced at the outset, and these generate most of the work's thematic material. This material is developed with a consistent logic: most of the thematic ideas appear in counterpoint with one another; the elaborate first movement displays an extensive cadenza, which leads directly into a brilliant fugato. Although tonal centres are not always clear and unambiguous, a general sense of tonality is always maintained. The second and perhaps more remarkable observation is the boldness with which the 22-year-old composer asserts his own forceful personality. Listeners familiar with Flagello's other works will immediately recognize the vehement articulation, emotional turbulence, and surging passions that continued to characterize his work throughout his career.

The first movement, Allegro maestoso, introduces two main thematic ideas: the first, emphatic and defiant, containing an insistent ostinato motif; the second, characterized by a plaintive lyricism and irregular rhythmic phraseology. These ideas are developed with remarkable thoroughness throughout the course of this imposing movement—longer than the other two movements combined. The second movement, Andante, is a melancholy nocturne, which rises to an impassioned climax before receding to a poignant conclusion. The third movement, Allegro con brio, is scherzo-like in character, but, like the first movement, in sonata allegro form. The main theme, derived from the principal theme of the first movement, toys with hemiola patterns, while the secondary theme is characterized by an ascending series of fourths. Both ideas are developed energetically, until the secondary theme from the first movement joins the finale theme in what is in effect a recapitulation of the entire concerto.

In 1959 Flagello's musical language reached a new level of maturity: more intense emotionally, more dissonant harmonically, more irregular rhythmically, formally tighter, and less obviously tonal. The works that followed proved to be among his most powerful and deeply expressive creations. In 1962 he composed Dante's Farewell, a "dramatic monologue" for soprano and orchestra setting portions of a text entitled Gemma Donati, by the prolific Italian-American poet and Latin scholar Joseph Tusiani (b. 1924). Dante's Farewell presents an episode in the life of the great Italian poet and statesman, told through the words of his devoted wife, Gemma. She recounts a nightmarish vision that came to Dante, warning him of danger to Florence, and of his painful decision to leave her and their children, and depart for Rome on behalf of his city-state, never to return. The piece is unified by a motif built around the interval of a third, introduced near the beginning by the solo violin.

During Flagello's most productive years, when his music was rarely performed, he developed the habit of leaving his works, including those intended for orchestra, in short score, planning to orchestrate them when a performance appeared imminent. Unfortunately many of these works, complete in every other respect, remained in short score at the time of his death. One of these was Dante's Farewell. In 2003, at the request of the Flagello estate, composer and music editor Anthony Sbordoni completed an orchestration for the work. Sbordoni's scoring displays an acute sensitivity to Flagello's approach to the orchestra, along with remarkable skill in bringing to life the sonorities implicit in the manuscript. The orchestral première of Dante's Farewell took place at Hunter College (CUNY), in October 2004. Nicholas Ross conducted the Hunter College Orchestra, and Susan Gonzalez, heard here, was the soprano soloist.

The Concerto Sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra was Flagello's last completed work. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the première in November 1985, with the Buffalo Philharmonic under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. Although the character of much of Flagello's music is dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation, and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his terminal illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer's conception of the work as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the composite voice of a hypothetical protagonist. The Concerto Sinfonico has had numerous performances in the United States and in Europe, and has been transcribed for symphonic band as well.

The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme, a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme, is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and hope, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, which bring the movement to a defiant conclusion. The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This section gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central portion that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to "the voice of God." The passage ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement. The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with a variant of the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque "trio" section, before the scherzo idea returns, now subjected to a thorough development. This eventually builds to another stark proclamation from "the voice of God," followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work's main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.

Walter Simmons
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)

For further information, visit www.flagello.com


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