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Adrian Corleonis
Fanfare, November 2007

The album listed features…First Piano Concerto, animated with blazing conviction by the astounding Tatiana Rankovich.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Adrian Corleonis
Fanfare, February 2007

It's startling to grasp that Flagello's First Piano Concerto (1950) is the work of a 22-year-old. It's not to be patronized-it possesses, as does nearly all of Flagello's best work, an immediate visceral appeal. All the things we've come to expect from the Second and Third Concertos (Artek 0002, Fanfare 23:1, 23:2)-high voltage, trenchant swagger, flamboyance, bizarrerie, generous feeling veiled in bittersweet and armed with truculence-are here, in early blossom, and potent. This already volatile mix, hovering between mania and depression, puts one in mind of Oretega's mot, "Man always travels along precipices and, whether he will or no, his truest obligation is to keep his balance." By the end of his broken-off career, audible in the Concerto sinfonico (1985)-his last com­pleted composition-the balance had tipped, the bittersweet acidly embittered, lacerating, and destructive, but lifted beyond self-pity by sheer manic energy, bleak self-knowledge, and a convic­tion of the sinister shot through with a sol niger ("black sun") radiance, seductive and attractive.

Composed in 1962 and left in short score, idiomatically realized after Flagello's death by Anthony Sbordini, Dante's Farewell is a setting of poet, scholar, and translator of Dante, Joseph Tusiani's prose monologue for Gemma, Dante's wife, as she recalls his exit into exile. One feels about this as one does about Joplin's Treemonisha, that it would be better received if sung in, say, Old Bulgarian, so that one might focus on Flagello's dramatic acuity, his somber orchestral hues, his arioso rising into cantilena, without being distracted by the text (included, by the way) whose slight preciosity becomes magnified and stilted by being sung. Nor does Susan Gonzalez's occasionally strident delivery ameliorate the effect. But bringing it to disc is something of a coup and allows the album to present Flagello at all stages of his career. 

If you'd not been told, you'd never guess that the Piano Concerto and Dante 's Farewell are played by a Ukrainian Orchestra-their crackle sounds positively New Yorkian-while the Rutgers Symphony manages, avec panache, explosiveness without falling into chaos. Among the "obscure" and "neglected," few composers have enjoyed such splendid stewardship as that lavished by colleague and executive album-producer Walter Simmons upon Flagello--evident in his deeply informed program notes-whose previous productions include the Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.559148, Fanfare 27: I) and the album of piano concertos cited above. (See also his moving obituary, "Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994): A Lost Voice," in Fanfare 18:5.) And that goes a fortiori for Tatjana Rankovich, whose vibrant animations of all three of Flagello' s piano concertos present to us-as does this performance of the Concerto sinfonico-revelatory points of entry into the work of a turbulent, arresting, and richly compelling major creator. The First Concerto and Dante's Farewell are captured in panoramic-spacious but detailed, gutsily immediate-sound, while the Concerto sinfonico's take is, without cramping, more compressed, with the saxophone quartet up front. Indeed, walloping sonics and dazzling clarity render this, overall, something of a coup de theatre.

I've returned to this album many times-when I should have been doing other things-with gratitude, ever enlarging amazement, and deepening satisfaction, than which I know no more urgent recommendation. If you have not yet come to Flagello, start here.

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, December 2006

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) composed music that sits firmly in the neo-Romantic tradition, Born in New York City, he studied with Ildebrando Pizzetti at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. It is hardly surprising that such unabashedly heart-on-sleeve music should have achieved obscurity during the 1950s and 1960s, when the musical avant-garde was so active. Things have changed, however, and now would seem to provide a perfect vantage for an appraisal of Flagello' s compositions.

This Naxos disc offers a fair conspectus of his work. The Piano Concerto was, in fact, part of his master's degree portfolio, amazingly. "Amazingly," because there is such a sure hand at work here for one so young; we are lucky to hear it, as this is its first performance since 1950.

That said, placing the work first in the playing order is perhaps not the best idea. Much of the piece seems almost to have a filmic basis and one is made very aware that neo-Romanticism simply does not carry the freshness of the original creative impulse that pure Romanticism had. For this reason, passages can sit on the fence between deep emotion and self-indulgence (try around 11 minutes into the first movement). If the cadenza is impassioned, the climax to the movement emerges as simply corny. The nocturne-like Andante provides a comfortable, warm space before the more energetic finale sweeps the listener into a disjunct dance.

The performance has plenty of dedication. The soloist, Serbian pianist Tatjana Rankovich, seems very at home here (she includes Creston in her repertoire, too). She possesses the requisite nimble fingers for the finale, plus a wide variety of touch that she deploys with much taste.

Dante's Farewell sets part of Joseph Tusiani's Gemma Donati, an episode in which Dante's wife, Gemma, retells a vision of Dante's. At Flagello's death, the piece was still in short score and it was left to Anthony Sbordini to provide this excellent orchestration. The work carries a heavy tread and is expertly paced here. Soprano Susan Gonzalez unfortunately has a propensity for shrieking in her higher registers, but she carries the prevailing lyricism well. There is more depth of feeling to the music here. John McLaughlin Williams accompanies perfectly, balancing the orchestra with a sure ear. Throughout, the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine plays with the utmost dedication and with a spirit of discovery that is simply infectious, faultlessly guided by Williams. Impressive.

Finally, a Concerto sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra. This was Flagello's last completed work (commissioned by the Amhurst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in 1985 with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov). There is no doubting Flagello's craft in integrating the saxophones as a group. There is a dark side to this piece-booklet annotator Walter Simmons posits this was in response to the composer's terminal illness. After a rather ominous and then explosive beginning, the quartet asserts its composite personality. The second theme, very lyrical, is introduced by a rather wooly sounding alto sax. The second movement, a barcarolle, begins with the utmost delicacy (almost whispered, in fact). A scurrying finale concludes a most effective work.

As an introduction to the music of Nicolas Flagello, this disc can hardly be faulted. Throughout, the performers play with the utmost dedication and with a spirit of discovery that is simply infectious.

American Record Guide, October 2006

A native New Yorker (he studied with Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music and later taught there), Nicolas Flagello (1928-94) was a faithful and devout romantic with a capital R. Unfortunately for him, his earliest music appeared just about the time that his backwards-looking, hyper-emotional idiom was going out of style, and he stopped composing (in the early 1980s) too soon to be picked up by the return-to-tonality bandwagon. Only in the past decade or so has Flagello gained wide recognition through recordings.

One of the most significant of those re­cordings included his Second and Third Piano Concertos (Vox 7521; July/Aug 1996), with the same (superb!) soloist as on this new Naxos premiere recording of his big three-movement First Piano Concerto written in 1950. Though this work doesn't represent Flagello's fully mature manner (his later music is gloomier and more harmonically adventurous) and is clearly indebted to conventional romantic-era rhetoric, it certainly conveys the composer's characteristic boldness and vitality. As frankly emotional as the concerto is- imagine a hybrid of Puccini and Rachmaninoff to get an idea of its sound-it has a forcefulness, a sort of masculine brawniness, that is Flagello's own. And, boy, does it have sweep, intensity, and conviction. It positively throbs with larger­than-life passions and defiant heroism that constantly strive for, and sometimes achieve, a magniloquent statement-as in the grand return of first movement's main theme (just after 8 minutes in). It also shows off two more of Flagello's key attributes: his careful crafts­manship and structural logic and his gift for memorable tunes, whether long-spanning melodic arches, restlessly unwinding inner voices, or rhythmically driving dances.

Naxos completes the program with two more of Flagello's until-now-unrecorded works from later in his career: Dante's Farewell, a 14-minute dramatic monolog for soprano and orchestra from 1962, and Concerto Sinfonico, for saxophone quartet and orchestra, Flagello', last composition (1985). Dante's Farewell setsa text (included in the notes) that relates an episode in the Italian poet's life from the point of view of his wife Gemma. (Dante has a terrifying dream-vision that warns him to flee h'is home and leave his family, departing forever for Rome.) Many listeners will be familiar with the genre from Barber's exactly contemporane· ous Andromache's Farewell, and there's consid·erable kinship between these two works, both of them heartfelt valedictions (sung by women cast as dramatic scenes inspired by literary history and shaped as symphonic, motive-generated structures. Flagello's composition is especially effective in the unforced, organic way the vocal line grows out of and finally subside, back into the evocative, slowly swaying music, built of rocking-back-and-forth thirds, that begins and ends the piece.

Concerto Sinfonico, written by the already-ailing composer, is if anything even darker ana more tormented than Dante's Farewell, though the coloring imparted by the four saxophones adds a faintly film-noir feel-appropriate, perhaps, to evoke the cinema of disillusion. intrigue, betrayal, and doom. The central 'Lento Movendo', a forlorn barcarolle, has a moody, death-haunted beauty racked by distant reverberations of tragic fates suffered and yet to come.

Performances and recordings are excellent, though not all listeners will be partial to Susan Gonzalez's heavy vibrato. This is an admirable addition to Naxos's growing library of American classics and definitely one for lovers of romanticism, whether or not preceded by "neo".

Christopher Fifield
MusicWeb International, August 2006

To quote Walter Simmons’ informative booklet notes, ‘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.’ He was active during the post-WWII years and his music certainly has attractions. Inevitably with a piano pitted against a full-size conventional symphony orchestra and the words ‘traditional romantic’ ringing in one’s ears, Rachmaninov - dead just seven years when Flagello wrote his first piano concerto - will, and does, spring to mind. There may not be a continual flow of melody, but the slow movement, a melancholy nocturne, is full of tenderness ending beautifully. The finale is rhythmically vital incorporating a scherzo in its conventionally structured sonata form, hemiolas popping up all over the place and there is a reminiscence of the strongly defined first movement to bring a tidy cyclical shape to the whole. The Serbian pianist Tatjana Rankovich impresses in this formidable account, for to play it is as hard as it sounds, while she gets solid support from the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under John McLaughlin Williams. This is an impressive start to this disc.

Curiously Rachmaninov immediately springs to mind once again, this time his Isle of the Dead, at the start of Flagello’s Dante’s Farewell, a dramatic monologue. It has a wonderfully atmospheric start, dark-hued colours and a beguiling solo violin. Flagello was a pragmatic composer and left much of his music in short score until a performance was forthcoming. With a more fallow period of rare appearances in concert programmes, it inevitably left a lot of works unfinished at his death, at least in terms of realisation in orchestral format. In 2003 Anthony Sbordini was commissioned by the composer’s family to score this scena, and the result is highly satisfactory for he is clearly in tune with Flagello’s now more mature style. Not a cheerful piece, this text entitled Gemma Donati by Joseph Tusiani, recounts a nightmare vision that came to Dante warning him of danger to Florence and his painful decision to abandon his wife and children and leave for Rome, never to return. Susan Gonzalez has a widely coloured voice, a rich lower register and thrilling top and the work allows full rein to her talents.

The disc does not have much cheerful music, and the Concerto sinfonico is no exception. Flagello had a degenerative disease for his last nine years, this work being the last completed and which he composed at the start of this sad period. Its attraction lies in the blend of four saxophones in stark contrast to the full symphony orchestra, but there is a wonderful moment of lyrical introspection in the first movement (five minutes in) before more grimness sets in. Clearly Flagello was a craftsman in musical concept and expression. Despite some occasional awkward tuning amongst it, the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet accompanied by the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra under Kynan Johns do the work proud.

MusicWeb International, July 2006

This is the second Flagello disc from Naxos. The first, reviewed here, included the hyper-romantic First Symphony. Like many another Flagello recording project this disc is due to Walter Simmons whose passionate yet objective advocacy for a generation of unfashionable American composers should be a matter of nationally treasured pride in the USA. You can read more about six of 'his' composers in the book "Voices in the Wilderness" (Scarecrow Press) an invaluable read for those with a sense of adventure in this repertoire. review

Flagello was born in New York City. The precocious young man soon came under the wing of another American late-romantic with Italian roots, Vittorio Giannini and studied with him at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1985 after many years as a composer and conductor he began to suffer from a degenerative illness and survived in tragic musical silence another nine years.

Going by the early Piano Concerto No. 1 Flagello's music is that of a tortured soul. Welts and wounds are exposed and the pain communicated. This is music of grandstand torment. The hyper-emotionalism and consistent heat of the writing leaves the listener suspended between Rachmaninov (Piano Concerto No. 3), Barber (the Essays) and Miaskovsky. As ever these are crude approximations but will give some idea of the realms of Flagello's expression. Flagello has no truck with trendy dissonance. He could not help making himself an outsider by writing a piano concerto like this in 1950.

Tatjana Rankovich knows Flagello's music very well having recorded the other two concertos for Artek review She relishes and rejoices in the frankly gorgeous melody of the Andante. The sparky and triumphant (4:40) finale will delight Rachmaninov admirers. Unusually for a rare piano concerto this movement maintains a consistency of mood with all that has gone before.

Dante's Farewell is a volatile operatic scena, corrosively assaulting the senses, fulminant and accelerant in one. The style can be related to the superheated arias in Barber's grand opera Antony and Cleopatra. Susan Gonzalez sings this music with affection and flaming emotion. The text is by Joseph Tusiani and recounts, from the viewpoint of Gemma, Dante's wife, the great Italian poet's nightmare dilemmas and emotional angst. The words are printed in full. The orchestration was made at the request of the Flagello estate and is by Anthony Sbordoni. Knowing more than a few of Flagello's other works this adaptation strikes me as completely consonant with the authentic Flagello style and spirit.

The Concerto Sinfonico is Flagello's last completed work. Typically it confronts and articulates torment and beauty; listen to the harp and celesta backdrop at is 5:10 in the first movement which prepares the way for the exultation of 6:23 onwards. The work is lent vigour and grit by a certain stamping energy slightly redolent of William Schuman. Towards the end of the movement a vengeful hunt seems to drive the music onwards to a destination that is part abyss and part triumphant apotheosis. It's powerful stuff. The quartet act as hortator and participant. There is no sense of separation or commentatory role. It was first performed by the Amherst Quartet with the Buffalo Phil conducted by Semyon Bychkov in November 1985.

You will know by now whether this music is for you. It merits a wholehearted endorsement.

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