This new Naxos disc, part of the American Classics series, represents the work of Nicolas Flagello (1928 - 1994) and Arnold Rosner (born 1945) in the genre of "sacred symphony." Flagello's five-movement "Missa Sinfonica" dates from 1957, the height of his creativity; Rosner's Symphony No. 5, "Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina," dates from 1973.
As a genre, "sacred symphony" might be defined as a purely instrumental suggestion of the stages of the Roman Catholic Mass, possibly but not necessarily drawing on music of the liturgical tradition, such as Ambrosian or Gregorian Chant. The form has a distant relation to the Eighteenth Century church sonata, so-called, and to works such as Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross" in its orchestral version. Often in Bruckner's symphonies, one senses that the notion of a "sacred symphony" is in play.
Thanks to the work of musicologist Walter Simmons, Flagello has finally (posthumously) begun to receive some of the attention and admiration that he deserved, but did not always receive, during his lifetime. In Simmons' landmark study - "Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers" (2005) - readers will learn that Flagello belonged to the school of serious American music that, in the mid-Twentieth Century, refused to assimilate to the modernist style stemming from the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, and other attempts to break radically with the musical past. Flagello stuck to a recognizably tonal idiom rooted in Nineteenth-Century practice but unmistakably "au courant" in its rhythmic vivacity and wide emotional palette. At times, Flagello employed a chromatic harmony and dense polyphony that Simmons characterizes as "expressionistic."
Flagello's "Missa Sinfonica," in five movements, follows the usual order of the Catholic Mass; its movements are (I) Kyrie, (II) Gloria, (III) Credo, (IV) Sanctus et Benedictus, and (V) Agnus Dei. In it Flagello largely avoids his "expressionistic" side to create movements of lyrical solemnity appropriate to the atmosphere of the Eucharistic Service. Moments of a more outspoken and colorful spirit do occur, as in the Gloria and the Benediction, while the overall character remains somber. The Credo is the most "imitative" or "picturesque" movement. The opening woodwind solo presents priestly incantation translated into purely instrumental terms and seems to incorporate the rhythmic structure of the first phrase of the "Credo" of the Latin Mass: "Credo in unum Deum." Those familiar with the Flagello's flamboyant side, as expressed for example in the First Symphony or the Symphonic Concerto for four Saxophones and Orchestra, will be surprised at the fascinating quietness that Flagello can achieve.
Rosner's Symphony No. 5 is larger in scale than Flagello's "Missa Sinfonica," by forty minutes in performance to thirty-four. Rosner's is perhaps also the more variegated and outspoken of the two works. It is more immediately arresting to a listener in both its melodic content and orchestration, at one or two moments approaching something like flamboyance, but without violating the spirit of the genre. (Mozart, after all, wrote a C-Major "Missa Brevis" which is as extravert and colorful as one might wish.) In the 1970s Rosner worked in a personal idiom that he calls "Neo-Modalism." Cognoscenti of his marvelous string quartets (recorded on the Albany label) will know the style, which manages successfully to combine modern sonata-type structures on a large scale with the harmonic patterns of the Elizabethan motet and Italianate Renaissance music. This synthesis has a few precedents: in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Tallis Fantasia," for example, and in Ottorino Respighi's "Church Windows." Rosner nevertheless achieves a personal and original and not an imitated formula.
The sequence of movements in Rosner's Symphony follows the Mass, as in the Flagello score: (I) Kyrie, (II) Gloria, (III) Credo, (IV) Sanctus et Benedictus, and (V) Agnus Dei. The center of gravity lies in the Credo, extravert in comparison with the similarly named middle movement of Flagello's score, which manages the extraordinary task of finding its climax on a modulating chord-sequence that thickens each passing vertical structure chromatically while still sounding like a vast extended plagal cadence in a major key. Rosner likes to dance as much as he likes to sing. The rhythms of the galliard, the pavane, and the bransle everywhere animate his lyrical motion.
John McLaughlin Williams takes robust command of the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, who tackle the unfamiliar music with professional aplomb.