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Two Gorgeous Late-Romantic American Symphonies,
This review is from: Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica; Arnold Rosner: Symphony No. 5 (Audio CD)
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 and several containing music by the underrepresented American composer, George Frederick McKay. Although not a world-class ensemble the Ukrainians play their hearts out in convincing interpretations of these works.