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Nicolas FLAGELLO (1928-1994)
Piano concerto No.1 (1950) [28.48]
Dante’s Farewell (orch. Anthony Sbordini) (1962) [13.43]
Concerto sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra (1985) [22.53]
Tatjana Rankovich (piano); Susan Gonzalez (soprano)
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
New Hudson Saxophone Quartet
Rutgers Symphony Orchestra/Kynan Johns
rec. Large Concert Studio, National Radio of Ukraine, Kiev 22-26 June 2005 and Mason Gross Performing Arts Center, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, 6 November 2004
NAXOS 8.559296 [65.28]

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.
Christopher Fifield

see also review by Rob Barnett (Recording of the Month - July 2006)


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