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On An Overgrown Path, October 2009

“…his campaign had given legitimacy to the cause of peace”—from the notes for Naxos’ recording of Arnold Rosner’s Fifth Symphony. In his notes the composer was referring to Democrat George McGovern’s unsuccessful campaign against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election.

Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press, February 2009

Williams has made 10 CDs as a conductor, most of neglected 20th-Century American music written in tonal or neo-romantic styles. Here are three fine introductions to his work:

• A lovingly conducted survey of orchestral music by Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937) revived interest in an American late-romantic composer with a homegrown melodic perfume (Naxos).

• "Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Vol. 6" includes sharply etched readings of 20th-Century French modernist Olivier Messiaen's "Exotic Birds" (with pianist Angelin Chang) and Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1. Williams won a Grammy in 2007 for the Messiaen performance (TNC/Cambria).

• A disc of two symphonic masses (no chorus) by Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) and Arnold Rosner (born 1945), spotlights Americans working in conservative tonal idioms in an era when high modernist complexity held sway (Naxos).

The Grammy Awards for classical music are often mocked for ignoring the most original and important classical CDs. Still, they do reward excellent work and, as John McLaughlin Williams proves, performers on the margins now have as good a chance at winning as big-name stars.

Here are the rest of John McLaughlin Williams' recordings as a conductor:

• A CD of 20th-Century violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees with soloist Elmar Oliveira was nominated for a Grammy on Sunday (Artek). The album lost to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and violinist Hilary Hahn's violin concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius.

• Two additional CDs feature the music of American Nicolas Flagello (Naxos and Artek).

• Two CDs on Naxos of music by American George Frederick McKay (1899-1970).

• Single discs devoted to Americans John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) and contemporary Deon Nielsen Price (Naxos and Cambria).

American Record Guide, November 2008

It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves romantic music who wouldn’t be delighted with this splendidly played and recorded disc of first recordings by two defiantly backward-looking American composers. Both Nicholas Flagello (1928–94) and Arnold Rosner (born 1945) begin at the same point: a purely symphonic rendering of that most emblematic Roman Catholic rite, the celebration of Mass. Both works come early in their composers’ careers, and both are ambitious, confident, full-scale compositions (35 or 40 minutes long). The liturgical dimension is evident in their five-movement architecture (following the traditional sequence of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and in their use of traditional plainchant.

But Flagello and Rosner have very different musical personalities, and their symphonic masses could hardly be more contrasting in style and mood. “Romanticism” is a vast aesthetic territory with very varied manifestations.

Flagello is a passionate romantic. His music throbs with larger-than-life vitality, drama, turbulence, melancholy, heroic exultation and tragic desolation. Melodies are soaring, harmonies rich, gestures large, climaxes tremendous. He often sounds like a brawnier, more operatic Barber, with an urgency and direct appeal to emotion well-nigh irresistible. Largely owing to the determined advocacy of musicologist and record producer Walter Simmons, the past decade has seen an outpouring of Flagello premiere recordings—symphonies, concertos, operas, sonatas, and more (see our cumulative index)—and this once-neglected composer has enjoyed a considerable resurgence of well deserved popularity.

Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica (1957) is in the composer’s earlier manner and has only a little of the gloom that often dominates his later music. Its predominant mood is celebratory, and it ends in triumph. But still, this is ultra-romantic music, with a grand struggle to be fought and won: listen, for instance, to the introductory ‘Kyrie’. Flagello’s approach to the divine is erotic in its intensity, heroic in its questing fervor. His ‘Kyrie’ is one long crescendo that builds from a soft, sumptuous, premonitory, darkened-stage restlessness out of which arises a meltingly beautiful woodwind melody that grows to a glorious extended climax (at 4:40) and intensifies into ominous, stabbing, brass-enforced thrusts (at 5:24) before slowly subsiding into the quiet restlessness from which the music began. And that’s only the first movement! II, supplying needed contrast, is a scherzo with breezy, exciting allegros enclosing a brief lyrical evocation of celestial tranquility. III is solemn and hymn-like, its stark modal plainchant accoutered with Puccini-esque luxuriance, IV another bounding and muscular scherzo, while V brings the Missa Sinfonica to a jubilant, triumphant conclusion.

Rosner’s Missa Sine Cantoribus Super Salve Regina, as his 1973 Fifth Symphony is subtitled (identifying the chant used as a basis for the piece), illustrates his very-different take on romantic aesthetics: pastoral simplicity, archaic ceremony, harmonious serenity, and stained glass grandeur are its salient qualities. These are typically evident in Rosner’s large output of symphonies, choral works, and chamber music (see index). Taking inspiration from Renaissance music, Rosner uses old Church modes and smoothly consonant triadic harmonies in his sonorous chorales, delicate stylized dances, and stately contrapuntal elaborations. Despite its lush orchestration this is dignified rather than sensuous music, evoking ancient communal ritual rather than the desires and conflict of individual human destiny. There are some affinities to Bloch, to such fellow Americans as Hovhaness, Creston, Hanson, and Dello Joio (particularly in their explicitly religious pieces), a closer kinship to English composers Rubbra and Vaughan Williams, and—far in the background—a distant echo of the exalted adagios of Anton Bruckner.

Rosner’s liturgical symphony, as you’d expect, is less far-ranging in mood than Flagello’s, and listeners are more likely to find themselves soothed and uplifted than pulled into an emotional storm. This is music to be contemplated and to inspire contemplation. The winds here are not threatening: they blow strong but slow—steady, steady as she goes.

William Zagorski
Fanfare, November 2008

Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica and Rosner’s Symphony No. 5… are stunningly played voiceless orchestral settings of the Ordinary of the Mass…a seemingly specific…idea becomes, via music, appropriately universal.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online

Carson Cooman
Fanfare, November 2008

…“one of the most significant new releases to appear this year on any label.” Arnold Rosner’s symphony is indeed one of the greatest and most individual American works ever produced in the genre; it needs to be heard by every listener eager for music of beauty, fervor, and strength. For me, this album is definitely the “disc of the year.” © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Carson Cooman
Fanfare, August 2008

This tremendous new disc from Naxos will be one of the most significant new releases to appear this year on any label. The CD pairs two large symphonic works by American composers Nicolas Flagello (1928–1994) and Arnold Rosner (b. 1945). It is the brainchild of producer Walter Simmons, who has been a tireless advocate for many years of the work of both Flagello and Rosner. These two works fall into the small, yet present, genre of “symphonic masses”— orchestral pieces without voices based on the structure of the Ordinary of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass. Both are thus in five discrete movements, with each movement corresponding to a section of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.).

Nicolas Flagello spent his entire career in New York City, where he remained active as a composer and conductor (largely associated with the Manhattan School of Music) until a degenerative brain disease brought his musical career to an early end. Flagello’s richly romantic music, though still neglected in the concert hall, has seen a burst of recording activity in the past few years. At present, nearly all of Flagello’s major works are available on record; in fact, Missa sinfonica (1957) is one of his last orchestral works to be recorded. Dating from his early career, the work uses Gregorian chant as the melodic basis. Though Missa sinfonica does not express the powerful depths of emotion and structural tightness found in Flagello’s very finest compositions (e.g., the first symphony or the Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra), it is nevertheless a work of great appeal. Its emotional terrain is sunnier than is Flagello’s wont, and it will thus make appealing listening for those who enjoyed Flagello’s terrific First Piano Concerto (1950), also available on Naxos.

Arnold Rosner’s music has been well represented on a number of previous releases (largely on Albany); although a number of his orchestral works have been recorded, this is the first time one of his largest pieces has been available. Rosner’s instantly recognizable musical style is based on an idiosyncratic modality developed out of Renaissance counterpoint and the mystical sounds of Vaughan Williams and Hovhaness. Though the “early music” influence is perhaps the most immediate sonic impression gained from a listen to any Rosner work, these archaic harmonies and cadences support a gift for memorable melody and beautifully crafted romantic development structures.

Rosner’s Symphony No. 5 (1973) is, without doubt, one of his finest compositions and one of the most original and individual symphonies of the 20th century. There is no other work like it. The piece can be described most simply as a fusion of Rosner’s two favorite musical genres: the Romantic symphony and the Renaissance cantus-firmus Mass. It is a piece whose astoundingly powerful impact is difficult to describe in words. From a technical perspective, Rosner uses the plainchant Salve regina as source material, developing it throughout in the manner of a Renaissance polyphonist. The ground plan for each movement has its starting point in the Mass’s textual structure; even the small details are present, such as the Gloria’s solo incipit (“sung” by a trumpet), which precedes the joyous, triple-meter dance that forms the body of the movement. Though the technical means are thus derived from the Renaissance masters, the emotional impact and orchestral color of the work come straight out of the greatest Romantic symphonies of the early 20th century. The fusion is utterly organic, totally natural, and the language and sound are 100 percent Rosner. There are moments, like the climax of the Credo, that are as breathtaking as the finest climaxes in any symphony of Mahler, to pick a composer known for such moments. There is thus a true wealth of spiritual transcendence as well as a nearly hedonistic pleasure in raw beauty of harmonic and orchestral color.

The musical lines and shapes that result from Rosner’s modality are harder to perform than they sound, and the excellent John McLaughlin Williams leads the orchestra through very strong renditions of both works; he has recorded Flagello superbly in the past and clearly works well with the Ukrainian orchestra. If you buy one disc of new American music this year, let it be this one. I promise you haven’t yet heard a piece quite like the Rosner symphony, and you will be very thankful when you do.

Ian Lace
Fanfare, August 2008

The titles of these two works might suggest somewhat gloomy listening? Not a bit of it! Both are accessible and colorful, and written in a full-blooded neo-Romantic style. Both symphonic Masses, without choruses, were inspired by and structured according to the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. Flagello (1928–94) and Rosner (b. 1945) were both in their late twenties when they wrote them. Although the two works are comparable in concept and design, they differ quite markedly in style and impact. These are the first recordings of both works.

Like Arnold Rosner, Nicolas Flagello was born in New York. Raised in the Catholic faith, Flagello—in addition to composing—was active as pianist and conductor and made many recordings of a wide range of repertoire. His music is traditionally romantic, although his later works are intensified by modernist harmony and rhythm. Commentators have been lavish in praise of his work; Mark Lehman claiming, “the music throbs with vitality. It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic, but it is always openly and fiercely passionate”; and Bret Johnson adding, “Flagello was perhaps the most effective exponent of the American lyrical post-romantic ideal in the generation that followed Barber.”

Flagello’s Missa sinfonica was first performed in November 1957 by the Symphony Orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music under the direction of Jonel Perlea. It combines elements of both the Mass and the symphony. Highly emotional, it is written in richly romantic harmonic language. The Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei suggest hymn-like arias, the music often reminiscent of Howard Hanson. I am reminded, too, of Rubbra and, sometimes, oddly, the music borders on the sweetness and drama of Hollywood’s Golden Age scores. The Gloria and Sanctus et Benedictus are scherzos in character. The Gloria’s jubilation points towards Copland’s vibrant El salon México rhythms, contrasted with a serenity recalling plainchant, but in modern dress à la Respighi. The Sanctus et Benedictus is a dance, unrestrained and unsophisticated expressing wonder and awe. McLaughlin Williams delivers a vital, committed reading of this glorious work. I will admit that the music of Nicolas Flagello is new to me, but this Missa sinfonica made such an impression on me that I hastened to learn more by acquiring two other Naxos recordings of his works in their “American Classics” series: the First Piano Concerto with shorter works on Naxos 8.559296 and his Symphony No. 1, etc., on 8.559148.

Arnold Rosner, a composer of unmixed Jewish ancestry, has composed two operas, six symphonies, five string quartets, and numerous other orchestral, chamber, vocal, and choral works, including three a capella settings of the Roman Catholic Mass. Steven Schwartz has commented that, “his music packs a huge emotional wallop…He writes gorgeous, powerful long-breathed tunes.” Rosner says of his Symphony No. 5 (1973), “[T]he ‘Mass without Singers’ was for me an anti-war statement, and I chose George McGovern as my dedicatee, believing that despite his tremendous loss in the 1972 election, his campaign had given legitimacy to the cause of peace.” Rosner uses the same five-movement structure and movement titling as Flagello for his Missa sinfonica. In Rosner’s Kyrie and Agnus Dei, neo-modal accents sit side-by-side with music that recalls Vaughan Williams—especially his Fifth Symphony, Pilgrims Progress, and Tallis Fantasia. Hovhaness is also not too distant either, and English Tudor dance music is another influence. The concluding Agnus Dei is a golden, majestic affirmative statement of faith. McLaughlin Williams’s involving reading is stirring and highly emotive.

Heart-warming, exciting music for the adventurous; strongly recommended.

Bret Johnson
Tempo Magazine, July 2008

During his time spent in Rome Flagello recorded a number of his orchestral works on the now defunct Serenus LP label, but one major piece which did not figure at that time was the 1957 Missa Sinfónica. Cast in the form of an orchestral mass without singers, the piece is much more than a mere set of reflections and approaches the sort of style found in Howard Hanson’s Sinfonía Sacra. Although Flagello uses Gregorian plainchant, the liturgical connotations are well and truly subordinated to the composer’s emotional and personal language. Again what impresses is the natural flow and Respighian orchestral brilliance, especially in the Gloria. Inevitably, in the insecure and unsettled musical world of the late 1950s, the work was totally misunderstood by critics at the first performance, and hasn’t been heard for over half a century. We can only be grateful to the American musicologist Walter Simmons for his ongoing programme of reviving these powerful examples of late romantic genius, and look forward to his next offering, the Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto by Flagello’s friend and teacher Vittorio Giannini (1903–66), due out on the Naxos label later in 2008.

Arnold Rosner (b. 1945) has continued these traditions, but in a rather less ‘verismo’ fashion. His music draws more overtly on neo-baroque and renaissance idioms and early polyphony, and his contemporary language is studded with archaisms and occasional Near—and Middle-Eastern modal inflexions. A prolific composer of over 120 works, he was an early disciple of Alan Hovhaness, some of whose stylistic influence can be heard in his 40-minute Fifth Symphony of 1975 (listen to the first movement with its echoes of Mysterious Mountain)…Like Flagello, Rosner possesses a strong and instantly recognizable musical personality. The structure of the Roman Catholic Mass and the abundance of plainchant provide a fertile soil for his lively imagination. This finds full voice in the triumphant Gloria, but the Sanctus is equally satisfying: the serene harp accompaniment in the hymn-like sections reminding one of RVW (Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus)as well as Langlais’s Messe Solenelle. These really are two wonderful (and extremely well filled) discs with good all round performances. Rosner deserves to be better known, and maybe this release will lead to recordings of other orchestral works of brilliance such as his Mylai Elegy (1971).

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, June 2008

The symphonies on this disc are both by New York composers who went against the atonal tide and both were written early on in their composers’ careers. But the real point of concurrence is that they are both masses for orchestra without chorus. Each is in five movements that correspond to the five sections of the Ordinary of the mass. Each is in its own way influenced by the emotions inherent in each section of the mass as well as using actual plainchant as the musical material from which the work is fashioned.

While Flagello’s symphony is full of deep feeling not all of its movements correspond to what one might think of as regards the term “mass”. The opening of the symphony is dark and almost despairing—appropriate to asking for mercy. The movement is developed sequentially, rather along the lines of the Hanson “Requiem” Symphony. But the second movement (Gloria) is scherzo-like and even playful, with a delicate “trio” and almost cinematic return of the opening material. This recurring cinematic aspect is one of the main drawbacks of the entire work. The third movement is a return to the mood of the first with the plainchant material developed in a hymn-like manner leading to an impressive climax. Like the second movement the fourth is in the manner of a scherzo, but this time it is more mysterious, almost a continuous proclamation of the Holy, Holy, Holy”. The last movement is definitely the most beautiful and the most original. It ends the symphony in a definitive fashion and points to where the composer would go in the future.

Arnold Rosner’s Symphony No. 5 adds another element to the idea of a symphonic mass based on plainchant: the musico-historic. His symphony is a homage to the procedures and styles of the polyphonic composers he greatly admires. In his first movement development is not as central as it is in the Flagello work—archaic qualities, forward motion and modality are important. The second movement is something of a rondo in which a phrase from the original plainchant is hammered home repeatedly. The Credo third movement is extremely attractive, like that in the Flagello and most mirrors the music of the golden age of polyphony, but it is the fourth movement that really struck home with me: the opening is lovely and the material returns several times, each time more beautifully treated than before, leading to a triumphant coda. By contrast, the last movement unfolds organically, though with equally beautiful treatment of the plainchant before ending quietly.

John McLaughlin Williams here turns in two of his best performances on Naxos. While his affinity for American music is a given he really enters into the individual sound-world of each composer on this disc. In addition, he draws quite subtle performances from the Kiev players, who excel themselves, and he is aided by his international cast of producers and engineers. The authoritative notes are by Rosner himself and by long-time Flagello proponent Walter Simmons. In all, a labor of love from all concerned.

J Scott Morrison, May 2008

If you like the music of, say, Barber, Hanson, Diamond or Creston, I can pretty much guarantee you will like the music on this CD. It is a mystery to me that the music of Nicolas Flagello (1928–1994) and Arnold Rosner (1945) is not proudly and frequently played by American orchestras. It has everything the concert-goer loves in symphonic music: soaring melodies, extravagantly rich orchestrations, inventive and yet easily assimilable harmonies, and creative formal construction. The two symphonies presented here are in the tradition of the so-called ‘symphonic mass’, that is music built on the Catholic mass but without vocal soloists or choir. Earlier examples of this genre are Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ and Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Liturgique’. However, I strongly suspect if one were to hear either of these works without knowing their provenance, one would be hard pressed to recognize either as a sacred work. No, I suspect one would simply respond to each of them as beautifully constructed and immediately appealing late Romantic symphonies, each with five movements corresponding to the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica (1957) is arranged so that the succeeding movements correspond to an opening allegro (a slow one, in this case, really more moderato), first scherzo, meditation, second scherzo and majestic finale. The feel of the first movement Kyrie is dark, pensive, maybe even slightly melancholy. The Gloria is nervous, skittish, and almost jazzy. The Credo is the work’s centerpiece; I hear it as a slow, brooding, meditative, even pleading crisis of faith. It is followed by another scherzo (Sanctus et Benedictus) which could only have been written by a New Yorker. One hears the bustle of the city that seems, to me, to be describing almost frantic searching. The Finale is a cautious assertion of faith seeking reassurance in the intercession of the Lamb of God. I hear this music not so much as the composer’s assurance of the value of faith as a questioning of it, with quiet but not necessarily final resolution in the affirmative.

Arnold Rosner is of Jewish background and one could legitimately ask why he has written a symphonic mass. He himself addresses this question in his fine booklet notes, pointing out that any composer in the Western tradition has absorbed a great deal of religious music and especially the form of such music, and that this provides an indispensable framework for much non-sacred music. He has composed his Fifth Symphony (subtitled ‘Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina’ [‘Mass without Singers on “Salve Regina”’]) to correspond formally with the sung Ordinary Mass and using plainchant (and thus modal harmonies). The work was written at the height of the Vietnam War and was explicitly conceived as a peaceful anti-war work; it was even dedicated to the anti-war candidate for President, George McGovern. I will admit that I am not familiar enough with the ‘Salve Regina’ chant to be always able to pick it out in the symphony. although some of its appearances are obvious. But certainly one can hear the marvelous workings of its implied modal harmonies here, often being reminded of such works as Hindemith’s ‘Mathis der Maler’ or Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.’ There are also sections that sound a good deal like Renaissance dance music. There is even a marvelous modal fugue in the Gloria. The Sanctus begins with the unaccompanied Salve Regina which then develops into a joyful dance with interspersed modal brass and wind harmonies. The Agnus Dei is the work’s crowning glory beginning with a serenely angelic melody followed by noble and reassuring passages that ultimately convey an ineffable sense of peace and psychological resolution.

Both these symphonies have about them the sense that they are intensely personal statements, the one about faith and doubt, the other about war and peace. And both of them are exceedingly effective. The direction of conductor John McLaughlin Williams is sensitive, masterly and committed. His orchestra is the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, one he has conducted and recorded with often, including a previous Flagello disc Nicolas Flagello: Piano Concerto No. 1; Dante’s Farewell; Concerto Sinfonico and several containing music by the underrepresented American composer, George Frederick McKay McKay: Violin Concerto, 16th Century Hymn Tunes. Although not a world-class ensemble the Ukrainians play their hearts out in convincing interpretations of these works.


Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, May 2008

Both these composers, one Catholic, the other Jewish—and both far less well known than they ought to be—have written works following the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass. They are conceived for orchestral forces, not vocal ones, and explore powerful, lyrical and impressive turns of phrase. I have to say at the outset that I was greatly taken by both and have returned to them several times.

Flagello died in 1994. His Missa Sinfonica has real hymnal beauty. It kowtows to no formula or prescribed aesthetic other than that of genuine musical truthfulness to its subject material. There are neo-romantic moments throughout, ones that perhaps align with Creston, though in its more surging and colouristic moments Khachaturian can come to mind as can—very different but exhibiting the same concern for lyricism and religious intensity—George Lloyd. The festive Gloria is a treat—did it lack sufficient earnestness for its auditors? More fool they. The frank string pliancy has a fulminous beauty no question, unselfconscious, warm, and some passages that sound like veiled Bernstein with hints of Cuban dance rhythms. The warm central panel of this movement is an unceasing delight. The plainchant vein that runs through the Credo maybe also hint at Vaughan Williams; there’s a noble grandeur in the peroration. The assertive and celebrity Sanctus and Benedictus have a “stomp without words” feel and prepare one for the solemn tread of the Agnus Dei; Walton and Barber have their place here amid the powerful climax of this invigorating, splendid work.

Those words apply also to Rosner’s Symphony No.5 Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina, which was written in 1973. This is a “neo-modal” work strongly redolent of VW. Rosner’s use of strings and harp in the Kyrie—and throughout—summons up the English composer but there are also brassy climaxes that maybe invite thoughts of Honegger. The Gloria is as light as a Renaissance dance with a fugal section like a brass canone and sporting incremental filmic force. The brass, strings and winds are saturated in Renaissance music in the Sanctus and Rosner hardly stints the climax of this movement—a seismic, MGM pile driver that affirms life in all its richness and strength. Surging power immediately surfaces for the Agnus Dei—as well as torrents of ardent lyricism winnowing to a quiet affirmatory close.

Neither of these works trades in any bogus -isms other than pure lyricism. They are strong, communicative, tender, agile and exciting. And they’re played here with roistering power and drama. Rather than duplicate yet another disc in your collection expand your horizons with these two vibrant American statements.

Steven Schwartz
Classical Net, May 2008

One of the byways of the symphony meanders into the territory of the symphonic mass—that is, a symphony, with or without singers, that takes its structure or its inspiration, at least in part, not from classical forms like sonata-allegro, but from the Roman Catholic Ordinary mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The mass, of course, with its mix of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew elements, is one of the great (as well as one of the oldest) intellectual objects of European civilization, and no small part of its fascination for artists, poets, and symphonists stems from the great body of musical settings from Machaut onwards.

The CD offers two approaches to this genre—one from Italian-American composer Nicolas Flagello, the other from the contemporary Arnold Rosner. Both men have been called Neo-Romantics, which just lets you feel the inadequacy of the term. For me, it suits Flagello more than Rosner.

Flagello came from a musical family. His brother Ezio had a successful operatic career. He came into prominence during the Fifties—that is, at exactly the wrong time. The Second Viennese School, and Webern in particular, occupied the catbird seat in contemporary music, at least as far as contributing to new notions of harmony and structure. Other avant-gardistes were extending rhythm and phrase away from traditional bases in song and dance. Even others, like John Cage, were busy redefining what exactly music was. Nevertheless, traditional composers still received commissions and even academic appointments. However, Flagello seemed to run with the wrong crowd: tonal, but not Barber, Menotti, or Schuman. I suspect as well a rather difficult personality that put off those he couldn’t afford to offend. However, he had strong loyalty from his colleagues at the Manhattan School of Music, and indeed he owes his revival to some of them. By the time the musical pendulum had swung Flagello’s way again, he was dying of a degenerative brain disorder. He could no longer carry out the simplest musical task. Many of his works remain in short score.

Of the Neo-Romantics, I think he comes closest to Barber, although, as you might expect, his personality is strong and distinct. I had encountered some of his music back in the Sixties through recordings, and nothing particularly impressed me then. I blame the luck of the draw as to what got recorded. I owe my enthusiasm for Flagello’s music to Walter Simmons—musicologist, critic, producer, and one of the motivating powers behind this CD—who kept me at it. I think of Flagello’s music as passionate and dark. He seemed drawn especially to melancholy texts but occasionally could also exercise great wit. As his career progressed, however, the moodiness tended to dominate.

I mentioned that Flagello’s approach to the symphonic mass differs from Rosner’s, and I think it comes down to the difference between insider and outsider, the difference between the Catholic-raised Flagello and the Jewish Rosner. Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica, while it occasionally quotes from chant, nevertheless doesn’t make chant its raison d’ être. Flagello’s idiom has far more in common with Barber than with Vaughan Williams, Hovhaness, or even the Rokstro-influenced Edwardians. Many symphonies based on the mass are, to some extent, sermons criticizing the culture at large: Honegger’s Third Symphony “Liturgique” or Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, for example. Flagello avoids this. The symphony’s five movements—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—correspond to a moderato, scherzo, slow movement, second scherzo, and slow finale, respectively. The proximity to the structure of the mass comes and goes. Sometimes, as in the Kyrie and Gloria, Flagello mainly gives you a mood. Sometimes, you can practically fit the words of the mass to Flagello’s music, as in the Credo, with its repetitions of “Patrem omnipotentem.” Above all, however, we get really something personal. Flagello is so comfortable with the mass, it’s so much a part of him (even though he may not have been a practicing Catholic), that he relates the mass to himself, rather than the other way around. The Credo particularly interests me for its rhetoric, its drama, and its keystone position in the symphony. This is hardly, as in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Christendom’s march to faith or even, as in the mass itself, an affirmation of communal belief. The inwardness of the music, the rising desperation of repeated calls to the “Almighty Father,” suggests a spiritual crisis. I admit that by the end of the movement, Flagello restores calm, but that seems to me a resort to the conventional. The Gloria, celebrating divine wonders, is appropriately dance-like. However, the Sanctus-Benedictus—on the other side of the Credo divide—works against expectations, to the grotesque. Something dark goes on here, not at all the assurance and calm of, say, Schubert’s corresponding movements in the E-flat Mass. Flagello’s symphony overall gives me the impression of the composer exploring his psyche through the structure of the mass.

On the other hand, the Jewish Arnold Rosner keeps closer to outward forms. In his liner notes, Rosner defends himself from the charge of “This is a Jewish occupation, writing a mass?” It makes as much sense to me as a white guy apologizing for playing jazz. Jazz and the mass—like Christmas, incidentally—are the common intellectual property of anybody with an artistic or historical imagination. I admit that Rosner probably doesn’t get out of a mass what a practicing Catholic does, but so what? As long as he produces something wonderful. And not every faithful Catholic necessarily comes up with a great work of art.

I’ll say right now that I loved Rosner’s music when I first encountered it, and repetition has only strengthened my attachment to it. Rosner began to produce serious work as a teen (although he’s revised some of those scores). He studied with avant-garde lights like Lejaren Hiller but claims he learned practically nothing from them. I hesitate to call him a neo-Romantic or a neo-Classic, although he has more in common with pre-World War II composers than with those who came after. Mainly, I’ve heard chamber music, because that’s less expensive to record, but the rare orchestral work that came my way impressed the hell out of me. His string quartets made me want to hear his symphonies. Born in 1945, he wrote the Fifth Symphony in 1973, the height of the post-Webernian serialists as well as of the Viet Nam War. Rosner admits to writing the symphony as partly a protest against that war and dedicated the score to George McGovern. I don’t know whether the symphony had ever been performed before this recording. In the meantime, what other symphonies has he written and when will anybody record them? This one’s a knock-out.

As shown by his subtitle, “Mass without singers on Salve Regina,” Rosner updates an old Renaissance practice—the mass based on plainchant. This comes in three styles—early, middle, and late. The early Renaissance tended to quote the chants, with skeletal contrapuntal support. The middle (in my opinion, the height of the genre) used the chant more abstractly, as an architectural frame which supported an efflorescence of counterpoint, as in Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua. The late Renaissance tended to use the chant as modern composers use themes. Rosner, it seems to me, does all three. There is a very abstract element in this symphony, as if the composer were working out a complicated chess or bridge problem. In the liner notes, Rosner writes that what aroused him in the first place was the harmonic ambiguity (to modern ears) of modal music. He seems to have approached it, at least in part, as a way to reinvigorate tonality. It works for me. In addition, it’s also powerful, even beautiful music.

However, a composer working with modes, rather than harmonies (and there’s a difference), faces some special problems. In fact, few modern composers -- other than those trying to prove a point -- work with the modal strictness of their Renaissance ancestors for the simple reason that harmony and harmonic progression have become one of the main ways of moving music forward. Harmonic progression leads you somewhere. Modal music is a bit like a cup that never tips over. It’s hard for us to conceive of a piece of real length that never moves from a particular tonal center, but that’s pure modality for you. The Renaissance composer created movement—a sense of going from here to there—in other ways: changing the matter of discussion, the rhythm, or the choral “orchestration,” for example. The modern composer can get a strong sense of movement simply by changing the key. Indeed, that’s probably the main way tonal composers do it. Surely, it’s the main way we distinguish the big pieces of a symphonic movement—first- and second-subject groups, for example. Even the modern composer who takes much of his sound from the modes—Vaughan Williams or Hovhaness, for example—“harmonically cheats” a bit. Rosner does what I’d call “overreaching the mode,” arriving at a new tonal place by grabbing a note outside the mode and harmonically “slipping in” to a new key center. It strikes me as a strategy similar to Hovhaness in his symphonies, although Rosner writes far more tightly than Hovhaness.

In five movements (again, corresponding to Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), this symphony emphasizes counterpoint. The plainchant isn’t always in obvious evidence, or even as half-hidden as the Tallis theme in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia. However, the “Salve Regina” is a pretty long chant. Rosner may be using parts of it unfamiliar to me. In any case, he also chops it into parts and riffs on the pieces. The Kyrie proceeds in rhythms that seem closely related to the text of the mass (a feature that seems to me to carry through the whole work). The music matches the mood “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), and the main theme, although not directly imitative of the plainchant, nevertheless seems influenced in its shape by that chant. Slightly more than halfway through, the opening phrase of the “Salve Regina” chant bursts forth as a climax, which also signals a brief change in mood, and the movement closes with a quick dance, based more strongly on the chant. The drama of the movement becomes a plea for mercy, answered by the Queen of Mercy.

The Gloria is both a kind of scherzo and an homage to fugal techniques. After the incipit of the well-known Gloria plainchant, we get a dance-like prelude, based on a version of a Salve Regina phrase, although I doubt most listeners (including me) would get this right away. Indeed, the Salve Regina chant seems to retreat underground. We then get a fugue on the Gloria incipit, including a great stretto section, with successive entries in distantly-related keys. After this comes another fugal exposition, this time using the bit from the Salve Regina that formed the little prelude. The incipit occasionally asserts itself against the fugal texture to build a climax, with the interpenetration of the two ideas, and we end on a massive restatement of the incipit. The mood of the movement resembles the Flagello: generally bright. It threatens to become manic, kept in check mainly by the clarity of its imitative counterpoint.

The Credo, like the Gloria, begins with the appropriate chant, familiar to listeners who know the Credo movement in Bach’s Mass in b-minor. However, Salve Regina works in the background, shaping musical materials and determining how the movement proceeds. In this, Rosner seems to combine his methods of the first and second movements.

Rosner puts the chant front and center in the Sanctus. He makes it the topic of the movement, which announces it at the very beginning. It starts as a kind of ritual dance, which gradually becomes more exciting, perhaps as God’s glory fills the heavens and the angels sing hosanna. Halfway through, the mood once again gets subdued. We hear the chant again and go through a similar process. This may correspond to the point where Rosner introduces his Benedictus and hosannas.

In a symphony of beautiful and powerful argument, Rosner saves, to me, the best for last. The Agnus Dei begins with one lovely tune, cast like a fly fisher’s line out over the water. The chant peeks out here and there amid the many lines, moving in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Again, a climax builds to a phrase with the rhythm of “Dona nobis pacem” / “Miserere nobis,” appropriate to a “war symphony.” Whether the composer actually intended this, I can’t say. Perhaps I’ve seen a cloud in the shape of Lincoln’s face. However, once I have seen it, I find it difficult to shake the impression. After this, the composer ends with a dance that makes me think of the innocence of heaven, much like the “bim-bom” movement in Mahler’s Third. It’s the end that really makes it for me. Rather than pound in a message or try to tug our heartstrings, Rosner gives us an image of play and peace—an impossible peace, as it turns out, but one well worth working for.

In a way, the social implications of the symphony have fallen away, in the sense that if you didn’t know Rosner’s stimulus from Viet Nam, you wouldn’t have guessed it. It has become something more universal: a work which challenges us to be serious and noble, and to keep our sense of fun. Not many works of art do this.

John McLaughlin Williams and his Ukrainians have come up with another winner, although I find them more purposeful in the Rosner than in the Flagello. Nevertheless, they play the Flagello with commitment. Still, they have made me hungry to hear someone else tackle it. Rosner should have no complaints. In fact, he should shoot another symphony over to these folks as soon as he can. An outstanding release in the Naxos American Classics series.

Gilles Quentel
April 2008

Naxos meets two composers unfamiliar in our countries, but that there will be more to discover: Arnold Rosner importantly, the very personal meaning melodic and the orchestra rutilant are really beautiful. A great moment of pure musical hedonism.

The American composers have, for the most part, kept away from modernist quarrels of their colleagues across the Atlantic. They have allowed all experiments outside the ideological cades, all explorations sound, but also all the conservatism around the charismatic figure of Copland synthétisait which alone the spirit of American music in all its dimensions.

This volume Naxos gives us the opportunity to discover two composers, Nicolas Flagello and Arnold Rosner that separates a small generation, but whose aesthetic is quite close. These are both very clever mélodistes, their orchestral colors warm borrow from Copland, of course, but also a Piston and Schuman (William, not Robert). Of the two, it is undoubtedly possible Rosner which is the more personal. If his style remains decidedly post-romantic, if the orchestra is not as refined as that of the three seniors that we just mentioned, one can not however deny him a melodic sense and a sense of color without equivalent: its agreements deliciously clear, its themes the majesty disillusioned, the colors of sunset on the hills, woods singing that gambadent above ropes, makes his Symphony No. 5 (1973) a work infinitely seductive. In the most vivid passages, brass accompanied by strings intone themes gaillards very moving: this writing inherited from Hovhaness where quiet strings bear singing brass is very common in Rosner (Sephardic Rhapsody, Millennium Overture, etc.)…This is the first disc devoted to Naxos Rosner, hope the label will not stop on the road.

From the point of view of writing, Missa Sinfonica (1957) by Nicolas Flagello is richer than the symphony Rosner, but the inspiration is not as dense. There is nevertheless a very nice orchestral colorations: velvety at the beginning, very singing with themes very pleasant then, in a style radically optimistic. The orchestra is a classic of its kind post-romantic, purely hedonistic and very well written. This is the third volume Naxos devoted to this composer, and probably the most interesting so far. The Artek label had in turn issued a few others (mainly concertos).

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2008

Born in New York in 1928, Nicolas Flagello became known as one of the outstanding pianists of his generation. He had also studied conducting with Dmitri Mitropoulos, and in 1962 was appointed Music Director of the Rome Symphony Orchestra. The third strand in his career emerged from composition studies with Vittorio Giannani, an Italian who had studied with Goldmark. From this cosmopolitan background we find music that was rooted in West European traditions despite his ‘American composer’ tag. He remained a tonal composer wedded to a style current in the early part of the 20th century, Korngold springing to mind as a guide to his output. His Missa Sinfonica dates from 1957, the content supposedly having a religious connotation, though I would not have guessed that from hearing the music, the final Agnus Dei seemingly from a Hollywood film score. Much of his quite substantial output remained unperformed on his death in 1994, despite much critical acclaim for those works that did receive a hearing. Whatever the inspiration, the resultant music falls most easily and interestingly on the ear, the orchestration colourful and inventive. Arnold Rosner is of a different generation having been born in 1945, his output to date being prolific and includes six symphonies, of which the Fifth is included in this disc. Subtitled Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina, it shares the same titles from the Roman Catholic Mass as the five sections of Flagello’s orchestral score. Here you do feel you are in a sacred score, Rosner taking a modern look back to religious music of centuries past. Maybe the massive ending to the Gloria is a little overdone, but overall this is a score that conservative ears will greatly welcome. Maybe he overdoes the tam-tam, but otherwise the scoring is most effective. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine will never have seen this music before, but John McLaughlin Williams steers them safely through it. The sound quality is reliable if unremarkable.

Robert R. Reilly, February 2008

Last month, I began talking about modern American classical music. The impetus was the new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as some other new CDs of American music. As I said, I doubt that many readers will have heard of many of the composers. I spent most of the column on the reasons why: the consequences of what happened to music in the 20th century when it eviscerated tonality, and turned off audiences. That struggle is over; tonality has triumphed, and with it melody.

The great value of the Naxos series is its demonstration of this fact. Naxos is restoring our musical heritage to us. It may seem a bit odd that a German, Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, is the one doing it, but bless him for it. In the American Classics Naxos catalogue, you will find some of the big names of American music—Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman—in impeccable performances. I have covered many of these releases over the years; I only want to remind you that they are there (see These are the composers who did not cave in to the ideology of amnesia and were able to achieve some prominence despite it.

Three new releases remind me of the fairly recent history of how the recovery of music took place in part. What began emerging from under the rubble of twelve-tone music back in the 1960s was Minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. Minimalism represents a return to reality, but it is the reality of an emergency room attempting to stabilize the patient after a terrible beating. First, maintain and monitor the pulse; keep the breathing steady. Regularity and repetition are the keys to recovery. And that is what we hear—the steady, monotonous pulsing of the heart. Minimalism is music slowly, ever so slowly, coming out of a state of shock, as it patiently puts the elements of music back together. There is a certain zombie-like quality to it.

Ars Nova, distributed by Naxos, gives us a mesmerizing performance of Terry Riley’s In C, considered by some to be the Magna Carta of Minimalism. It is a somewhat in-your-face assertion of a single pitch, in C, against the pitchless music of the avant-garde. This work from 1964, here performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble, under Paul Hillier, deploys 53 melodic patterns that can be played or sung in sequence by any number of singers or instruments. Hillier uses a vocal group and a percussion ensemble consisting of eight marimba players and a vibraphonist (who also doubles on Bali gong). A pattern can be repeated any number of times before proceeding to the next one—in other words, forever. You may be hypnotized or bored, depending on your tolerance for trances. In any case, it is essential listening for those who wish to understand how music made it back from the grave.

The two other leading Minimalists, Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass (b. 1937), have also received new releases that illustrate Minimalism’s therapeutic value, if limited musical interest. Reich’s music on the CPO label (CPO 777 337-2)—Sextet, Eight Lines, and, especially, Piano Phases, with the London Steve Reich Ensemble—seems to keep getting “stuck” for long periods in order to dramatize the moment when it becomes unstuck. This works depending on how much patience you have. Reich breaks the monotony with syncopated rhythms, a sense of humor, and some fun. His music can be like a get-well balloon in the recovery room. The fun starts in the first movement of the Sextet with a locomotive imitation and continues with what sometimes sounds like a typewriter in the fourth.

Philip Glass shows what happens when you try to make something bigger out of the limited techniques Minimalism employs. I enjoyed some of Glass’s early works and found his opera on Akhnaten intriguing. However, his endless use of chugging ostinatos wore me out a long time ago. The new Naxos release (8.559325), featuring The Light and Heroes Symphony, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, does not reconvert me. I find The Light light; pleasant, but nothing more. Glass keeps trying to write big-idea music that never seems to get out of the rehab ward.

The composer who broke out of Minimalism and promised a complete return to health is John Adams (b. 1947). A new Naxos CD (8.559285) brings his complete piano music together, with pianist Ralph van Raat, in beautiful, spirited performances. Even at his most Minimalist, Adams knew how to create lovely, even exhilarating music, as his early Phrygian Gates demonstrates. The much later Hallelujah Junction (1996) shows that he has never quite shaken his Minimalist roots or stopped aiming at the ecstatic. It was in orchestral music and opera, however, that Adams made his reputation. Through it, he became the most popular composer of his generation. I will never forget the impact of his Harmonielehre from the mid-1980s. Here was a huge orchestral work that showed that the recovery period of Minimalism was over, with all the resources of music triumphantly restored.

I have kept waiting for Adams to do it again. I suppose that is why I feel disappointment at his new release on Nonesuch (79857–2), which pretentiously places two works, The Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives, on two CDs, though they would easily fit on one. Charles Ives (1874–1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer, and I am not attracted by the conceit that Adams’s father knew him. In the first movement of the Ives piece, Adams’s evocation of him borders on cliché, as it includes an imitation of two bands passing each other and the cacophony they produce—a signature experience in Ives’s life that led to his embrace of and delight in dissonance. Yes, I know dissonance can be fun but, please, it is time to move on. This not to say that some of Adams’s pastiche in this work is not fun; it is.

The Big Sur piece is a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, the second movement of which is a tribute to Terry Riley. Some of the sonorities are quite beautiful but, to me, the keening kind of sound made by the electric violin can come close to irritating and, worse, near to kitsch when it becomes syrupy, which it occasionally does here. I do not think there is enough spine in this work to keep it from being high-level mood music, although Adams achieves some real grip in the thrilling, almost overwhelming climax. If only the rest of the work deserved it. At O’Hare airport, I ventured into a music shop to kill some time. I was disturbed that classical music was lumped together in a bin labeled “classical and new age.” I am sorry to say that is where Adams’s new release belongs.

As I never tire of pointing out, there were some composers who never gave in to the prevailing amnesia, and who suffered crippling neglect because of it. In this category, Nicolas Flagello (1928–1994) is Exhibit A. Flagello was an unadorned late Romantic, whose music surges with extraordinary intensity and dark passion. He is straight in the tradition of Rachmaninoff and, closer to home, Barber. Occasionally, his unsettling, melancholic sound is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, but with a richer palette.

A new CD from Artek (AR-0036-2) continues the rescue effort led by music critic Walter Simmons, who produced this CD, to record Flagello’s music. The Symphonic Aria that begins the disc is an extraordinarily impassioned piece that serves as a perfect introduction to this composer’s world. The main work on the CD, the Violin Concerto, was not even orchestrated by Flagello because there was so little prospect of its being performed. How’s that for the effects of neglect? Anthony Sbordoni orchestrated it with panache. Violinist Elmar Oliveira plays it with verve and commitment under John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. What an irony that this huge, rich, stirring concerto does not receive its premiere from an American orchestra. The CD also contains some gorgeous operatic interludes, arias, and songs.

Simmons scores again with a new Naxos American Classics CD (8.559347), featuring these same forces, with Flagello’s early work, Missa Sinfonica, paired with Arnold Rosner’s Symphony No. 5, Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina. The Missa is a purely symphonic work inspired by the ordinary of the Mass. Simmons writes that Flagello “considered all his compositions to be fundamentally spiritual in nature.” Without its title, I would never guess that it is based on the Mass. However, I do detect in this early work the salutary influences from Flagello’s studies in Rome with Ildebrando Pizzetti. I also hear traces of Respighi and Malipiero. Ironically, it is Rosner, a Jew, whose beautiful work sounds more properly liturgical than Flagello’s. I am happy to have Flagello’s Missa, but I would start with some of Simmons’s other Flagello discs, those containing the piano concertos and the First Symphony, also on Naxos.

Next month—more evidence of the American recovery of classical music in the new discs of beautiful works by Steven Gerber, Kenneth Fuchs, Peter Lieberson, Jon Bauman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Morten Lauridsen, and others for whom I hope there will be room. Do you know who they are? You should, and will.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Here are two grandly proportioned and lavishly stated American symphonies. They are expressed in serious but by no means glum language. Each is in five movements and each follows the schema of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. They are for orchestra alone.

In spirit these works link with Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, Martinů and Hovhaness. Loosely grouped they can be seen as companions to Creston’s Third Symphony and Hanson’s Fourth which also follow, more or less closely, the Requiem pattern.

Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica arcs from a sturdily Rubbra-like Kyrie with echoes of the aspirational pilgrimage of Hanson’s Sixth Symphony to a plunging and catchily playful Gloria soon lost in romantic wonderment (4:26). The statuesque Credo is earnestly reflective, somewhat in the spirit of Vaughan Williams but with a more overtly romantic sensibility. Then comes the sparkling Sanctus with its rhythmic vigour paralleling that of the Gloria but with a curvaceous grand melodic underpinning that bridges, with a natural continuity of pulse, to the Agnus Dei finale. This is romantic (3:20) but firm as the roots of the mountain and enduringly memorable for its lyrical heft and clamantly grasped majesty. The final fade recalls the confident abnegation of Vaughan Williams 5 and Rubbra 4.

Arnold Rosner’s Fifth Symphony has practically the same movement structure and names. As we know from the frugal catalogue of his works on record Rosner’s music is serious, shot through with light, borne up by melody and ever distant from triviality. The neo-modal accents cannot help but become entangled in a redolence of Vaughan Williams—especially his Fifth Symphony, Pilgrims Progress and Tallis Fantasia. Hovhaness is also within hailing distance. Try the start of the Credo with its shades of the Armenian-American composer’s various meditative-invocatory works for solo brass instrument and orchestra. There is also a spirit of Tudor dance which no doubt links with Rosner’s opera The Chronicle of Nine (1984). In the Agnus Dei the language bows in endearment towards Nielsen (symphonies 5 and 3) and to Vaughan Williams (symphonies 5, 8, 9). Its climax streams through the heavens, suffusing the firmament with an extended and sustained orison. This work represents a peaceful blessing bestowed on a cruel world. This is in contrast to the Flagello which keeps a Barber-like emotional turmoil in its tread. Rosner should be treasured as much as Ronald Stevenson whose Ben Dorain has recently been premiered in Glasgow. Let’s hope he is performed more often than has to date been Stevenson’s fate.

Make it your business to hear these symphonies. If you have any affection for the crudely drawn comparison works I have given will find these symphonies rewarding miracles of melodic expression.

The notes are confided to us by Walter Simmons and Arnold Rosner. John McLaughlin Williams and his orchestra took trouble over four days in Kiev to give us concentrated, communicative and not careful accounts of these emotionally imposing works.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group