Franco Ferrara: Fantasia Tragica; Notte di Tempestaby Francesco La Vecchia
If you haven't heard of Franco Ferrara, you should. A 20th century conductor and composer, Ferrara's sensibility draws on Russians like Shostakovich, while still capturing a dramatic, operatic, Italian feel. His "Preludio" is initially melancholy and beautifully moody. Textures and shapes emerge from the music, with sweetness in the violins. The music grows loud, but never loses its sense of phrasing and shape, thanks to the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under the baton of Francesco La Vecchia. Ferrara's "Fantasia tragica" is barely audible in the beginning, as it is so quiet, eerie, and tragic as it evolves. The entry of brass is exciting. Very foreboding, it reminds the listener a bit of Sibelius or Shostakovich (Ferrara's source of inspiration). In fact, it might leave the listener with a clear answer of what sort of music one would get if heavy Verdi and Italian drama were crossed with the style of Northern European and Russian composers. The tonally fascinating "Notte di tempesta" features great colors in the orchestra: high string tremolos, the flute paired with the bass clarinet, and rolling timpani. The menacing passages that move up and down the scale in the low strings are like waves, played with excellent precision by the Orchestra Sinfonica. One is swept away by the waves, the roar, the swells, the thunder. A tightly knit, chorale-like passage is an interesting contrast to the stormy music. The lushness of the strings recalls string orchestra music such as that of Vaughan Williams. The ending is rich, with the strings paired with the warm brass. The last piece on the album, "Burlesca," is warm and inviting, very accessible like a film score. One might conjure a Harry Potter film or 1950s films when hearing the music. The beginning is whimsical, with string pizzicato, flute leaps and jumps, and a tinkling triangle. Engaging dialogues between the instruments are complemented by sweeping strings. There is a strong contrast between the warmer passages and a dark, menacing theme, proof that Ferrara knew how to keep dramatic tension in the music. Ferrara should become a household name, especially when played beautifully by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. ~ V. Vasan
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First impressions convey important insights but sometimes they just fall short. The cover of this "Tragic Fantasy" seems to show an angry hand grasping the red and black vale of clouds in a threatening reach. Hmmm---is this modern music angry, grasping, stormy, dissonant? The content of Ferrara's Preludio, Fantasia tragica, Notte de tempesta, and Burlesca contradicts the false initial image and envelops the listener in lush melody to imagine a mind-lifting voyage into light and energy. The arm reaches out in blessing, from the 16th century Bishop and reformer Carlo Borromeo, from the enormous statue in his memory and honor in Aroma, Italy. These beautiful compositions are performed by the only private orchestra in Italy, The Symphonic Orchestra of Rome, under the direction of Francesco La Vecchia. The pieces were written at different times, but make a most desirable combination and collection. . The Preludio is soft and dreamy, inviting the listener to relax and enjoy this musical fantasy. . Fantasia tragica begins so softly that almost nothing is heard for several seconds. A chromatic theme is introduced, hides, and reappears throughout the piece. A drum ostinato prevails for a while, and the music fades away again at the conclusion. . Notte di Tempesta begins quietly much like its predecessor, perhaps envisioned by a single black cloud on the horizon. By the end of this selection, it has earned its designation as the Night of the Storm-imagination is reinforced. . The Burlesca flirts with the imagination to conjure up no horrors, but imps, pixies, fairies peeking around the edges of flowers-or perhaps flutes are just chasing the cornets on stage. Or maybe from a movie, the Pink Panther or Doris Day flit along with their on-screen plots. The imagination has free rein to do limitless exploration in flights of fantasy. The life of Franco Ferrara provides an education in itself. After a prodigious childhood and productive but handicapped early career, he worked with movie producers to provide enduring and successful film scores. We have been hearing this composer more than a little, and not recognizing how much we enjoy his works. These selections, as well as others by Franco Ferrara, deserve a prominent place in the CD collection of the discerning listener.
Apart from Gustav Mahler, who was equally famous for both composing and conducting, internationally known music maestros who also composed are relatively few; examples are Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Igor Markevitch, Evgeni Svetlanov, and Bruno Walter. In his lifetime, Franco Ferrara, one of Italy's most renowned 20th-century conductors, tutored over 600 students, including many who subsequently became famous conductors. It is, therefore, a surprise and a pleasure to discover that he was also a composer. According to the Naxos program notes, his vast, largely unexplored catalog includes instrumental, vocal, and orchestral works; a full-length, as-yet unstaged opera, "La sagra del fuoco" (The Festival of Fire); numerous short pieces written for television and adverts; and, curiously, a few songs written under the pseudonym of Franz Falco. Based on the contents of this new CD from Naxos, what he composed is certainly worth hearing, in my opinion. Once again, Naxos is to be congratulated on taking a leap of faith by recording these virtually works. The solemn "Preludio" is followed by the dramatic, late-Romantic-style "Fantasia tragica," which (according to the notes) draws upon Shostakovich; the persistent drum beats drive home forcibly the concept of tragedy. "Notte di tempesta" (Stormy Night) is also highly dramatic and (to my mind) projects a brooding atmosphere. "Burlesca," one of Ferrara's earlier works, is lighter in mood, and makes a splendid contrast to the other three works on this CD. The program notes give many details about Ferrara, but little information about the four works heard on this CD. Despite that, those who love emotional music composed in the late-Romantic period (with some touches of post-Romanticism, although Ferrara never composed in an atonal style) should certainly add this CD to their collection. The playing and recording quality are exemplary. Ted Wilks