Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: Comfort music from Franco Ferrara

Franco Ferrara
Fantasia tragica
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; Francesco La Vecchia, conductor

Franco Ferrara was many things: a brilliant pianist and violinist, a teacher, a conductor -- and a composer. Ill health forced him to give up public performance at age 47, so the bulk of his reputation these days rests on those who studied conducting with him, such as Roberto Abbado, Andrew Davis, Riccardo Muti, among many others.

This new release from Naxos, Fantasia tragica, features four world premiere recordings by this master musician. Ferrara certainly isn't the first 20th Century conductor who wrote music. There's George Szell, Jose Serebrier, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and (of course) Gustav Mahler. Ferrar isn't quite on the level of Mahler, but his works are more tightly constructed than Furtwangler's.

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma present four world premier recordings of Ferrara's music. They provide an excellent reading of this material, giving the listener a great introduction to these unknown works.

This is accessible and appealing music, indeed! While sitting clearly in the 20th Century, Ferrara's compositions stay safely with the bounds of tonality. To my ears, the compositions sounded somewhat like mid-career Shostakovitch, without the Russian accent.

That's not to say this a a bad recording -- far from it! Ferrara has some original music ideas, and his intimate knowledge of how an orchestra works allows him to come up with some very effective and moving tonal colors. In a way, it's sort of like comfort food. Ferrara doesn't challenge, but rather reassures with his music.

I found the Fantasia tragica particularly appealing. Like Ravel's "Bolero," the work gradually builds in volume as more instruments enter the mix. But there's no driving percussion here -- just a long, beautifully-crafted melody that moves inexorably upward, winding its way through the orchestra.

This would be a great disc to give to someone who's ready to move beyond the basic repertoire. There's still plenty of touchstones with the familiar, but the spark of originality Ferrara brings to his music makes the exploration worthwhile.

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