Ferrara: Fantasia tragica (CD review)

Also, Notte di tempesta; Burlesca; Preludio. Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572410.

Italian conductor, composer, lecturer, and teacher Franco Ferrara (1911-1985) maintained a conservative attitude toward music-making at a time when most other composers were venturing out into more modern waters. Not to worry. Ferrara did his best to keep up with the times, working in cinema a good deal of his later life and counting among his over 600 students the likes of Roberto Abbado, Eduardo Alvarez, Maurizio Arena, G├╝rer Aykal, Riccardo Chailly, Myung-whun Chung, Franco Collura, Sir Andrew Davis, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Mario Lamberto, Francesco Lentini, Antoine Mitchell, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Oren, and Reinhard Schwarz.

The Naxos album begins with Preludio, a brief piece as the title would indicate. It starts out slowly in an almost meandering manner most of the way and then proceeds into a full-blown rhapsody before it's over. Maestro Francesco La Vecchia caresses it delicately and provides a sweet reading, which because of its rather traditional nature makes a suitable introduction to the rest of the music on the disc.

Next, we get the more-substantive work on the program, the Fantasia tragica, a homage to Dimitri Shostakovich, a piece Ferrara based on the third movement of his Russian colleague's Symphony No. 11. It opens with a slow, enigmatic introduction, builds through a series of conflicts and crescendos, and evolves into a tragic climax. The music is not particularly memorable, nor does La Vecchia try to make it into anything more than it is. It sounds a lot like the background score for a movie, not surprising given Ferrara's long association with the cinema.

After Fantasia comes Notte di tempesta ("Stormy Night"), the longest piece on the disc at almost fifteen minutes. Here we find another moderate, relatively traditional score, although it is one filled with heightened emotional passages that vary from one moment to the next. The music reminded me of English composer Arnold Bax's tone poems, actually, with colorful, pictorial writing abounding in every line. La Vecchia seems to be enjoying this one best, a kind of dramatic romp for him, ending again in a fairly exultant cinematic fashion.

The program concludes with Ferrara's most playful music of all, the youthful Burlesca from 1932. With this one, both Ferrara and La Vecchia are having fun. It provides a joyful end to an album that began on a far more serious note. The music has all the lightness of a popular song and might be describing a sunny stroll around the streets, fountains, and parks of Rome.

Recorded at the OSR Studios and the Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome, in 2008, the sound is round, soft, and ultrasmooth, with an adequate but not distinguished breadth, depth, and dynamic range. In fact, it sounds like much of the work the Naxos folks do, always agreeable but seldom quite in the audiophile class. While I cannot imagine many listeners being disappointed, I can't imagine too many audiophiles jumping for joy and using it as demo material. Let's just say it suits the mood of the music.


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