> Choral and Song
Passion of Martin Luther King; L’Infinito; The Land
E. Flagello; Ambrosian Singers, London Philharmonic Orchestra, I Musici di Firenze, N. Flagello. No texts. Naxos Historical 8.112065
The concept behind Nicolas Flagello’s Passion of Martin Luther King is a compelling one: moved and saddened by Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Flagello (1928–1994) decided to create a musical tribute to the slain leader, appropriating movements from an earlier liturgical piece of his own for chorus and orchestra and interspersing new musical settings for bass-baritone of King’s speeches. The resulting ten-movement work was recorded in London in 1969, with the composer conducting, but remained on the shelf until its recent release on the Naxos Historical label. In the interim, conductor James DePriest performed the work and recorded it in 1995 on the Koch label, but this was a revised version; DePriest felt that the concluding “I Have a Dream” movement was too straightforwardly beautiful and not bittersweet enough, so Flagello rewrote it. The present disc — a remastering of Flagello’s 1969 original — is now the only extant recording of the composer’s first version of the piece.
New York City-born Flagello comes off as a twentieth-century composer who refused to give up Romanticism; on the evidence here, at least, he composed in bold emotional strokes and primary colors. The musical language — sophisticated but tonally anchored — calls to mind Barber, Shostakovich and Britten, as well as Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. The opening “Hosanna Filio David” contains vivid splashes of Technicolor and reveals the composer’s sure dramatic hand, which proves to be omnipresent. Timpani rolls and ominous, slow-building orchestral crescendos make their intended impact. The text settings are vivid and coloristically shrewd: the martial “In the Struggle for Freedom” is particularly effective, and the choral climax in the fifth movement delivers action-packed glory. The “Jubilate deo” movement is a brilliant choral fugue. The piece is not all flash, though: an unexpectedly tender setting of the phrase “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” brings a lump to one’s throat, and the “Stabat Mater” movement is deeply poignant. The vocal writing is unfailingly lyrical. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned in its earnestness, the piece is a refreshing respite from today’s postmodernism and irony. It’s also an excellent way to revisit some of Dr. King’s enduringly inspirational words.
Giving a magnificent rendition of the solo part is the composer’s younger brother, Ezio Flagello (1931–2009), who sang at the Met for twenty-seven seasons, giving acclaimed performances of Dulcamara, Pogner, Leporello and the Nozze Bartolo, among others. Flagello’s forceful interpretation bursts with ruddy coloring and amazingly clear diction; he is ceaselessly formidable.
Also included is the masterful L’Infinito, a setting of a poem by Giacomo Leopardi, which packs a wallop in its brief three minutes and has some of the intensity of Ernest Bloch. The disc closes with The Land, a 1954 cycle of six Tennyson poems, which Nicolas composed for his brother. These are full of surprises, including attractive echoes of Respighi, Puccini, Richard Strauss and Ennio Morricone, wrapped up in Flagello’s own brand of sophisticated expressiveness. This kind of thing was not the fashionable aesthetic in postwar contemporary classical-music circles, to say the least, but it’s certainly worth revisiting now.
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